Book: Resilience - The Life of a Mexican American. Novel based on a true life story. Names changed to protect participants. Introduction & 18 Chapters. I´ve posted first nine chapters. Interested in reader feedback. If interested, please read and provide me contructive feedback via comments. For additional chapters and poems, email (comments emailed to me, not posted so as not to influence future readers)

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Chapter 3: A Large Family

Mark was three years older than I was. I always thought he was rather mean, but later I grew to understand he was just being a typical older brother.

Early in life, he seemed to find refuge in hanging out with our cool brother Raul. They were both always in trouble. They either stayed out late at night or hung out with some of the bad boys around the neighborhood.

Dad lectured Mark often. He wanted him to avoid the same problems Raul had.

Raul always stuck up for Mark, but after Raul left, Mark learned to fend for himself.

Poor Mark. Not only was he Raul´s protégé, he was also overweight and had pimply skin.

Mark was the person in my family that christened me with my nickname “Kiki.”

Mark named me this when I was a baby. He said when he played with me while I was in my crib, I always kicked him. So, as a three year old boy he’d say, “kicky, kicky, kicky…”

Everyone started calling me Kiki.

Growing up, the nickname stuck. All my brothers and sisters called me Kiki until I left home.

I was a tomboy. I enjoyed playing outside, climbing trees and being adventurous. I liked being bossy and leading my kid brother and sisters and the kids in the neighborhood around.

My behaviors ran somewhat counter to Mom´s philosophy. Mom thought women should be subservient to men. Women should stay in the house, cook, clean and tend to housework.

My brothers and sisters often teased me, “Always with the boys!” I wanted to be a boy. Boys had the life. Boys were in charge. Boys had it made.

Mom coached me in Spanish, “You mustn’t always be outside with the boys. You must stay in the house. It is the woman’s role to serve men. You must cook and serve their meals. You must wait on them. They are different than women. Someday you will marry and you will serve your husband.”

These were the lessons she learned as a young woman and she tried to pass them on to me.

I didn’t often listen.

“No, mama! That’s not true nowadays! Women don’t have to serve men anymore.”

I just couldn’t abide by her coaching, even at seven.

Mom would shake her head and say, “Aayyy que mujer!”

Through these years, Mark became the Lord and Master over me and my little brother Rick. Without the technology we have today, it was easy for Mark to find ways to order us around. One of his favorite commands was having us adjust the TV antennae.

We had a black and white television with the antennae on top of our roof. When he changed the channel, my brother Rick and I were the designated antennae turners.

Often, my brother Mark commandeered Rick and I to climb up a wobbly ladder and get on the roof. Mark talked to someone else who was in the house who told him when the picture was just right and he passed the orders on to us. After a while, we didn’t need the inside person.

We could only get three TV channels with our antennae. We knew if you turned the antennae southeast, we could get channel 12 in Flint. If we turned it northeast, we could get channel 6 and east would bring in a clear picture for channel 10.

One day, when Mark was feeling particularly bossy, he directed Rick and me up the ladder. Then he took the ladder away.

“Ok, here’s what we are going to do. One of you has to jump off the roof onto this sofa.” He pointed at a rickety old sofa we put in the backyard, ready to go to the junkyard.

Rick and I started screaming. “No! We’ll get hurt! We can’t do that!”But no matter how much we pleaded, he wouldn’t budge. One of us had to jump.

Rick and I were both crying by now, tears running down our cheeks. Finally, Rick puffed up his puny little seven year old chest and said, “I’ll do it.”

I stood back, shivering, waiting for my poor little brother to jump off the roof and get smashed to pieces.

He took two steps back, took a deep breath, and made a perfect three point landing, bouncing softly in the middle of the fat cushions of that old couch. Then he gently hopped off, landing on his feet.

Mark and I just stood and stared with our mouths open.

Mark looked at our little brother with admiration, patted him on the back and said, “Ok. A deal’s a deal. Rick saved you, Kiki. You can climb down the ladder.” Rick was beaming. He knew he saved my life.

“No wait! If Rick can do it, I can do it, too” I figured, since Rick made it look so easy, it had to be a piece of cake.

“No, don’t! I saved you! You’ll kill yourself!” Rick screamed.

Mark shook his head saying, “Stupid girl! You asked for it!” He pulled back the ladder.

I took two steps back, just like Rick did. I flew from the roof, but I must have tried too hard. Instead of making that perfect three point landing, I clumsily bounced off the couch and slid square on my face. Ooh I was bruised and hurt.

Mark just stood back and laughed. “It’s your own darn fault! I told you I’d put the ladder back, but you just had to jump!”

While the house we lived in enabled us to have a place of our own, close to Dad’s work, with a huge backyard for us to play in, it had quite an interesting architectural style.

Our house was built in 1900. It was originally a small, one bedroom house. Over the years, however, room after room was added on.

Dad rebuilt and extended our kitchen. He added on an extra bedroom in the back. The upstairs had two large rooms which were added on last. There were no closets upstairs, so we built them in ourselves out of plywood. Dad was also a house painter and each room reflected overages from his latest jobs.

Though it was an unusual floor-plan, it was our home and we always had great family times.

One of our great family traditions was going to the movies on Saturdays. Every Saturday morning, all the kids stood in line, hands out, and palms up to receive movie money from Dad.

Our parents encouraged us to go to the movies on Saturday because Dad worked three jobs all week long and sometimes went out on Friday nights. He liked his quiet time on Saturday.

We had a set routine each week. Dad worked his jobs throughout the week. If he was going out, on Friday afternoon, Mom prepared his clothes for the evening. He came home from his second job and dressed. He left about 8:00 p.m. and went to the neighborhood pub.

Sometimes, at 3:00 a.m., Dad came home, feeling very merry. He woke us all up to give us giant, three quarter pound hamburgers from the Eat Shop. We loved when this happened.

On Saturdays, he gave us money to go to the movies.

The movies were glorious. I remember going to the Esquire Theater, an equivalent to the super-saver theaters you see today. In the late fifties, we paid fifteen cents a ticket. They showed triple feature horror flicks. We saw great movies like “The Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman,” “The Tarantula,” and “The Incredible Shrinking Man,” all for only fifteen cents.

We kids left the house at 10:00 a.m. We walked three miles to downtown and first, walked around the Grants Department Store. After that, we walked to the movie theatre a block away. We left the theatre at 6:00 p.m. at night and arrived home by 7:00 p.m.

It was a beautiful thing for all of us. Our parents had peace and quiet all day and we kids escaped into the beautiful world of the movies.

I always sat right up front, the closer the better. I went inside the movie, sight and sound, and lived the experiences of the actors on the screen.

Our family enjoyed being together.

Every August, we loved going to the Ionia Free Fair. We thought it was the biggest and best fair in Michigan. We went every year. One year, we all piled out of our family station wagon. I was the last one out of the car.

In my excitement, I slammed the door shut on my thumb. Ouch. It hurt. I re-opened the heavy metal door and looked at my thumb. It started to turn a funny shade of purplish gray and I felt the blood pulsating in it.

Mom said, “What’s wrong?”

I answered, “Nothing.”

I knew if I said anything and my parent’s thought I was hurt, we would probably have to go home. We just arrived at the fair and I didn’t want to go home yet. Even though my thumb throbbed horribly for hours, I had a great time at the fair.

When we came home, my thumb started throbbing again. I ran cold, cold water over it, but it still hurt like crazy. I finally went to bed.

A couple of hours later, I woke up and started throwing up. Mom got up and took care of me, holding my tiny eight year old back as my body wretched.

Mom picked up my toweled hand and said, “What happened to your hand?” I stopped throwing up momentarily, and shrugged my shoulders as tears of pain ran down my cheeks.

Mom unrolled the towel from my hand. She saw my thumb, which was now red and purple with the thumb nail just hanging. She took me into her bedroom and showed Dad my hand.

They studied my thumb and me and said, “You shut your thumb in the car door, didn’t you?”

I nodded.

“When did you do it? When we got home?”

I said no. There was no use lying. I told them it happened before the fair. They hugged me and said, “You must really love the fair.”

After Ramon left for the army, Mom was often quiet. After caring for housework and cooking, she spent much of her time peacefully reading her bible.

Often, Mom allowed my brother Rick and me to play outside all day. We were adventurous and constantly explored the neighborhood.

Rick was a good kid and I liked him even though I had fun picking on him at times.

Rick was three years younger and precocious as heck. He was just like me. He liked to explore and discover new things. Everywhere I went, Rick was my tagalong. They used to call us Kiki-and-Ricki, just like it was one word.

Rick was a smart kid too. He often finished what I started. It was a good thing Rick and I hung out together. We always looked out for each other. We were like two adventurers out exploring the world.

As I said, our brother Mark was our Lord and Master. Another day, Mark went up on the roof. Rick and I spied he had something in his hand. We looked closer. It was a long mop handle. In our eyes, it looked like a spear. We didn’t like anything dangerous like a spear anywhere near Mark. We knew he was liable to do anything and that anything was bound to hurt us.

Rick and I were standing pretty close to the house when Mark said, “I’m going to throw this stick at you. You better start running.”

He didn’t have to tell us twice.

Rick and I started running as fast as we could. There we were, running side by side, as fast as we could. I looked over at Rick. He looked over at me. We were both petrified!

Mark cranked up his ole’ arm. The faster we ran from the house, the bigger the spear looked. I saw Mark throw the spear as hard as he could, without even looking. Rick and I ran faster and faster to make sure we were nowhere near that thing when it landed.

The trajectory of that spear couldn’t have been better if Mark had radar. I don’t know what the mathematical equation was for making a perfect hit under these conditions, but that spear nailed Rick square in the middle of the back of his head. It looked like a lightning bolt as it connected. It was insane, but Rick looked like he expected the spear to hit. He screamed out.

The mop handle kind of stuck there for a split second and Rick continued to run down the yard with a mop handle falling from his head. As it fell out, Rick was still running and screaming, but by now, drops of blood started spurting out of the back of his head.

No one could believe it. Mark stood there shocked. I stood there shocked. Rick was hysterical. He started screaming and crying and huge, gigantic tears just jumped from his eyes.

Mark and I gathered up Rick and took him inside to Mom.

Mom was livid. “Now what did you do!” Her accusation was to both Mark and me.

“Now Dad will never let you go to the drive-in tonight!” she screamed, as she was finding the gauze and the iodine. Mom always used iodine for cuts and scrapes. She said the pain you felt was a clear sign the germs were being killed.

When Mom said, “No drive-in,” Mark, Rick and I all looked at each other. This was more painful for us than a spear in the head. All of the kids in our family loved going to the movies. The drive-in was the best. You could sit outside and hang out with your friends. It was a blast. Now, with Rick hurt, our parents would never let us go.

When Mom left the room, Mark and I started begging Rick, “Please, please don’t say anything to Dad about what happened. Please don’t act hurt. Please! We gotta go to the drive-in! Please!!”

Rick was still in shock from the pain. The blood barely stopped spurting. He had a thick piece of gauze, dotted with iodine taped to the back of his head. He was dazed and faint, but he groggily agreed that he wouldn’t say anything.

When Mom came back into the room, Rick was the one who said, “Ma, I’m ok. I want to go to the drive-in too. Please don’t tell Dad.” He said this, mind you, with blood still oozing out of his wound and countless blood covered rags all around him.

Mom eyed us warily, like she knew we put Rick up to this. She put both hands on her hips and shook her head, “I don’t care. I won’t say anything. But if anything bad happens, it is all your fault!” She wagged her finger at all three of us.

Dad came home. Rick’s wound stopped bleeding and was now covered by a small, clean patch. Even so, he stood hidden behind us, groggy, but ready to go to the drive-in. Dad saw the small patch on Rick’s head. “Hey, what happened here?” “Oh nothing, Dad. It’s just a scratch,” Rick said.“You know how these traviosos are always hurting themselves.” Our mother unwittingly helped us. Dad ignored the wound.

We did get to go to the drive-in that night, although Rick slept through it.

Since we didn’t have video games, we spent most of our time playing outside. Rick and I explored the neighborhood.

There were some neighbor kids who lived behind us. Mom called them the pelones, or baldies, because they always wore their hair in a butch haircut. Calling them like you saw them was a cultural habit. Having a butch haircut in our neighborhood was usually a telltale sign.

The pelones lived with their mother above one of the old stores behind our house. She always worked and was rarely home so the boys often roamed the neighborhood. Rick and I were friendly with them because they were about Rick’s age and they tended to follow us around.

Elderly Anglo couples occupied both houses to our left. They didn’t have any young children. Occasionally, their grandkids visited. We let them hang around with us sometimes.

There were two houses on the right side of our house. Three doors down, there used to be a huge tenement house on the corner. It was full of really loud, rowdy country people. The house was torn down shortly after we moved in.

The house two doors down had people in it at first. After a couple of years, they moved and it turned into an abandoned house. Rick and I used to pretend this house was haunted. We often scared our gang of little kids with horror stories about that house.

I used to gather all the little children around and tell them scary ghost stories. One of their favorites was the story of Tina and Ann, two children who dared to enter the scary, abandoned house.

Eventually, that abandoned house was torn down too.

The house next door to us was always occupied with different renters. Dad knew the landlord and often kept him posted on the activities in that house. After one family moved out, the landlord called Dad over.

“Look at how they trashed this house.” The tenants left old furniture and mountains of trash in every room, even the basement. There were huge holes in the wall, stripped wallpaper and stained walls.

Dad looked around with him and shook his head. The landlord said, “I don’t know what I’m going to do with this house. It would be cheaper to give it away so I don’t have to pay for getting it back in shape.”Dad said, “Are you serious? I’d take it off your hands.”

He hedged, “No, no. But maybe, if you are interested, we could work something out.”

Dad came home all excited. “Mama. Mama. The man said we can buy the house next door for only $3,500.”

Even I knew that was an incredibly low price to pay for a house.

Dad looked at all of us and said, “I need your help. Help me clean it up and we will rent it and have more money.”

All of our eyes got big. We would own two houses on the street.

“Hey Dad, maybe we can call it Perez Street,” I said.

Everyone laughed. We all liked the idea of having a street named after us.

We all pitched in and tackled cleaning that house. It is astonishing what concentrated effort can accomplish.

We were in the middle of our work when the landlord walked in. Already he could see the amazing improvement.

“The house looks good, very good.”“We’re working very hard,” Dad said.

“I see you are.” He asked Dad to go outside.

I peered out the window and saw them talking. Dad looked very serious. He came back in the house and said, “He thinks we did such a good job on the house he wants to go back on the deal.”“No Dad, he can’t. We worked so hard and we had a deal!” I cried.

“You tell him that.” He looked down.

The man came in the house. He started telling us what a good job we did.

“Then why do you want to go back on the deal?” I asked.

He looked startled. He didn’t expect these words coming from an eight year old child.

“You made a deal with my Dad and we worked so very hard to fix this house.” I continued. I had tears in my eyes.

Dad, Mom, our whole family looked at the man with pleading eyes. I started to cry.

The man looked at us, one by one.

Finally, he put his hands on his hips and sighed, “I guess I can’t fight a whole family. You have a deal.” He shook Dad’s hand and they went outside to talk business.

Dad came back inside afterwards. We were all still hard at work. He stood over by me, where no one else could see. He winked.

When it rained, we had to figure out fun things to do inside our house. We spent most of the time in our dining room. We had an old, wooden table with a bench on one side and chairs all around the other sides. Our TV was on top of a tall cabinet in the corner. We kept it up that high so a head never got in anyone´s line of vision.

Sometimes we played card games and other times we played board games. Sometimes we lined up the chess or checkerboards. Other times, we played monopoly or Chinese checkers together.

One particular day, when our parents weren’t home, we all decided to draw. We sat around the table with paper and pencil in hand. Since I loved to pick on Rick, I decided to draw a picture of him.

I started out with a big round circle. Rick had horn-rimmed black glasses, like the kind Buddy Holly used to wear. They were easy to draw on this big, round circle. Next, I shaded in black hair and slashes for eyes, nose and mouth.

“What a work of art.” I held it up for everyone to see. Everybody laughed.

“It’s Rick! It looks just like Rick,” I roared.

Rick was mad. “No it doesn’t. You just drew a round circle and glasses! It doesn’t look like me!”

He proceeded to draw a picture of me, but obviously, it didn’t look anything like me. While I had made a perfect likeness of him!

“It’s Rick, It’s Rick!” I laughed. He got angrier and angrier. “Give me that picture!” he screamed.

“No! No!” I laughed.

He started chasing me but since I was taller and ran holding the picture high above his head, he couldn’t take it from me. Finally, I stood facing the wall, picture held high, just out of his reach, laughing, and saying “It’s Rick It’s Rick!”

Poor Rick. He just couldn’t take it. Since he couldn’t reach the picture, he did the next best thing to stop me from flaunting his picture. He grabbed me around my middle and tripped me. I looked very silly as I tumbled. Pretty soon, everyone was laughing, even Rick and I.

One thing about our household, the girls did all the housework and the boys only had to do the occasional chore. They expected to be served by the girls just like our mother coached.

One of my horrible household chores was to wash the dishes. With ten kids in our family, you are talking about a stack of dishes that was as tall as I was at ten years old. This doesn’t even include the pots and pans.

I hated washing dishes, particularly the pots and pans. We were poor and Mom didn’t believe in S.O.S. pads. She said they were a luxury only rich women could afford.

If you ever fried chicken with breading on it, you know the pans get caked with hard, stuck-on breading that is impossible to get off without a torch. I think one of the reasons I used to bite my nails was because they broke so easily from all the scrubbing I did.

With this in mind, it’s easy to understand why I would do anything to lighten my dish load. Hiding dishes became a special talent. Mom caught on quickly to this, so leaving the pans in the oven was much too obvious. I had to find more clever hiding places.

One afternoon, after I finished the dishes, my brother Steven, another lord and master over me, started picking on me. We were both sitting at the table.

First Steven threw a piece of paper at me. Now, I never liked getting picked on, so I felt it only fair to retaliate in kind. I threw a paper back at him.

Next, he threw a piece of cardboard at me. I picked up another piece of cardboard and threw it back at him. It was clear to me this game was starting to escalate.

Next, he looked around. This time, he found a bigger piece of cardboard and threw it with more force.

Now the stakes were getting higher. I spied an empty lightbulb carton, picked it up quickly and speared it at his head. “Kerplunk…crackle, break!” It went.

“Why would a carton sound like that?” I wondered.

Then I looked down on the floor at the pieces of a dirty dish that I forgot I hid in that carton a few days earlier.

Steven’s head had a big red mark on it. It was futile to run. I was much too close. I just took the pounding. I figured I deserved it.

I’m not the only girl in the family to get into these throwing games. My sister Gloria did it too. Gloria likes to tell stories like I do.

One day, she was telling a joke she heard. I think we all heard the joke five or six times before, but Gloria just liked telling it. Right when she was getting to the punch line, Steven blew her joke and said the punch line.

She promptly picked up a metal pitcher and threw it towards Steven´s head. Pow!!! Neither expected it would actually hit. They got into a pretty good fight after that.

My sister Gloria is six and a half years older than I am. Growing up, she used to like to show her power over me. She often had lists of chores for me to do.

To get my attention, she liked to tug on the longest lock of my hair. Other times, she took her sandal off and tossed it at me. Once when I was doing my best to ignore her, she threw a high-heel shoe at me. This shoe wasn’t just any shoe, it was a spiked high-heel shoe with a metal heel on it. She tossed it and somehow the metal heel stuck in my arm. Now, it looks like I have two vaccination shots.

Gloria didn’t always pick on me. Most of the time, she looked out for me.

One summer, we were swimming in a remote area of Lake Michigan. I came out of the water. I ran towards my brothers and sisters who were smoking on the beach. As I came closer, Gloria asked, “What´s on your leg?”

As I got closer, she screamed, ¨It’s a le-e-e-ech!”

I looked down at my leg and saw the leech. I was scared and became hysterical. I started to run!

As I ran passed her, Gloria screamed to my brothers, “Knock her down!”

My brothers knocked me down in the sand and held me down. Gloria asked someone to get her a cigarette and she plopped the lit end on top of that leech until it fell off my leg. All the while, I was kicking and screaming.

After she took it off, I looked down at the welt on my leg. I was so relieved the leech was gone.

After it was over, we all started laughing about it.

I looked at Gloria with admiration. In the end, she always looked out for me.

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