Part One of Three
To understand what I need to tell you without doubting my sanity, allow me to rewind a little bit, back to where it all started: in California, October of 2016. There I was in the most kick ass, beautiful scenery I’d ever experienced in the United States. I had thought that no beauty could rival the beauty of Europe, South America or the Middle East, but Big Sur blew me away! And after it blew me away, it suctioned me in like a high-end Dyson vacuum cleaner, swallowed me up, chewed on me thoroughly and spit me back out like worn out beef jerky – SPLAT – right back onto Georgia red clay.
Since then, I’ve been shut down both creatively and socially. I have not wanted to hear, I haven’t wanted to see, and I have had no interest in picking up a camera.
I’ve been through this kind of thing before. This time, I chose not to panic, but it’s been so infuriating! I mean, seriously – why now? I’ve got all this material from my trip! 18 rolls of film and over three-thousand digital photos. I’ve got so many plans with my work!
I’m going to turn 50 in 2017. I couldn’t help but think that this felt like the end for me – not in that catastrophic, life-ending kind of way, but like the end of a long road where I’d have to start all over in all respects. I mean, who the f*ck am I without all of the things I do and how I do them? Who am I without a camera and without Facebook? Please, shouldn’t I just push through this?!
“Nope. Don’t do anything with that. Stop showing it. Don’t write about it. In fact, get off of Facebook altogether. Ok, but only log on once a week, if that. Instagram is ok sporadically…oh, and please stop worrying about the end of your own life and start paying close attention to your mother right now.”
What does mom have to do with this?
Part Two of Three
Fast forward to 5AM this morning. I awoke very abruptly with a very strong message in my head which began with, “Drop all opinions whatsoever…” After tossing and turning for half an hour, I went to make coffee. The message continued from there and included, “be here at this moment, listening to the input that is arriving as slowly as your coffee drips into the Hario.” Yes, it literally said that!
This is the part where you might think I’m losing it, but stay with me if you can …
Being where I had been up until this moment felt so uncertain and imperfect, unfinished and raw. It’s kind of like a sample book on your Kindle that trails off with the sentence, “and then……” but then there are no more pages – just a “purchase this book” link. And then, what? I need to know what happens next!
So this is when I think about Mom. She did not know at all what was going to happen next when she landed in Atlanta, which will be 61 years ago next month. After a couple of stops from Bogota through Miami, she didn’t even know where she was actually, and if she was in Atlanta when she signaled to the flight attendant after everyone had already departed the plane and asked, “aquí??”, pointing her index finger downward. “Yes, here!”, responded the flight attendant. She departed the plane with her rosary beads and Colombian “cedula” (ID card) and passport tucked into her leather purse, her mid-century, heavy black embroidered wool suit, and her small suitcase of neatly ironed clothing, stepping onto U.S. soil for the first time.
It would seem such a romantic life gesture that day in January of 1955 – except that she would have to wait the longest, most arduous 15 minutes before la Señora Repa would come to pick her up. Sitting there at that airport gate in Atlanta in the old Hartsfield Airport on a cold, leather chair and an even colder January day outside, there sat Leovigilda Ramirez (affectionally known to all her friends from this point forward as “Leo” – and try saying that with a long southern drawl). She knew not one single word of English and had no clue if something perhaps had gone terribly wrong and just maybe she wasn’t actually in the right place or worse, in the right city!
However, Señora Repa finally showed up and the rest is history. Leo Ramirez began her journey as one of the first of three hispanic immigrants in Atlanta, Georgia.
What is sandwiched in between this opening scene in 1955 and this scene right now, at this moment on December 31, 2016 with an almost 91 year—old woman, likely having finished her morning prayers and sitting down with her cup of Publix brand Colombian coffee in her split-level home kitchen, a tiny artificial Christmas tree closely, which was awkwardly decorated by her 53 year old son two weeks ago, marks the meatiest of matter in my life. It also marks the lives of my brother, my extended family, and every life she’s touched since then.
Who this woman is and how she went from that sitting in Hartsfield airport questioning her whereabouts to actually learning English completely on her own with no instructor ever, to learning a trade, to finding another immigrant to marry in Atlanta in 1957, to raising two children in a comfortable home among three cultures, then sending them to Catholic schools with no major incidents and no loans whatsoever except a mortgage is quite the miracle in and of itself. There are actually dozens of miracle immigrant stories similar to my mother’s but although each one has its uniqueness to share, this one seems to me in my most impartial view, to be distinctly unique.
Part Three of Three
And it’s from here that I start acknowledging this story because I believe it’s for “this” that I’ve been so quiet and disconnected from the world I know these last couple of months. This morning, it felt as if I was absorbing (like paper to heavy ink) the world in flux all at once. In fact, when I awoke, on the other side of the planet there was a profound celebration at the passing of one year to another. So naturally, I wondered if I was hearing the sounds of fireworks and champagne corks popping somewhere in rural Australia.
Or was it something else? Just last week just before Christmas, our dear family friend, Harriet McDevitt passed away. I was lucky enough to be there close to her passing. Harriet was mom’s dear friend and client and was a surrogate mom for me for nearly five decades. My brother and one of their seven children went to school together, I graduated from grade school and high school with their eldest daughter, her father coached our basketball team, we created our own stories for years and we stayed in the same town all of our lives.
And today, December 31, I was nudged out of bed at 5AM to write this. Is it any coincidence that Mrs. McDevitt always said to me in her impeccable southern drawl, “I keep telling your momma she needs to write a book.” She was totally serious when she used to tell me that.
Was that you, Mrs. McDevitt, who who woke me up this morning urging me to start this or was it the sounds of fireworks and champagne corks popping somewhere in rural Australia?
Meanwhile, on the other side of the planet at 5AM at this urging and up until now, there is profound celebration at the passing of one year to another. No one could hear me thinking on this side at 5 AM – or at least I think so. Yet I awoke and arose to the deep thrust of nations all across the planet embracing change, yearning for and hoping for the end to all pain they’ve endured, losses they’ve grieved and anxiety that may have plagued them for months on end. And by the same token, others are rejoicing in victory, some are emoting elation and others are gushing gratitude over the joys they’ve experienced “this year.”
The point is, If I’ve come to believe one thing, it is this: This talk you’ve heard about us being one… it’s true. All of it. I have been buzzing with unified energetic expression inspired by the likes of “someone” to move forward with a story. I don’t know how I’m going to tell it – through pictures or words or both, but I began this story last year with photographs and I assume that’s going to remain a part of it. And does it matter if no one reads her story? Does it matter if I finish it or when I finish it?
Well, I guess that I am the one to decide if that matters enough or not – my muse and I, that is. I just thought it important to acknowledge that it has given me a direction of sorts and I absolutely have to oblige it, putting all other creative endeavors aside, including social media and the usual daily online drills.
Some might read this and say, “wow, Juliette – you love your mom so much.” Let me be clear….
Whatever I do with “this” or don’t do with “this”, the “this” doesn’t represent the love I have for my mom, as that love is a private affair between me and my family. I don’t want to or intend to share that love elsewhere.
This is about my love for stories, examples of real people and the beauty of human potential despite the challenges. It’s about creating “new” shifts in life and opening to hearing the messages that life offers us, if we choose to stop talking for a while and listen, stop posting for a while and be still, stop opininating for a minute and keep quiet. It’s about not panicking when we feel our hearts closing down, but leaning into that experience with openness and honesty… finding someone we trust to tell that too and telling them, “I don’t want to lose my faith. I want to stay open”, like mom did.
Perhaps love propels “this”, but “this” is not about me or my relationship with mom in the least.
And so it goes, this year ends but this immigrant story begins being told. May this “new year” bring forward all of our stories for exploration, and let not our stories tear us apart, but bring us together.