The Person You Think You Know
Next time you’re riding the subway or sitting in a restaurant, look at the people around you and imagine their stories. Where did they come from? How did they meet the person they’re with? What was their big, life-changing event? If there are ten people around you, there is one story in your midst that is so inspirational, or painful, or just plain mind-numbing, that you couldn’t breathe until they finished telling it. And that one person may be someone you think you know…
I recently sat at a dinner party next to a woman named Maria whom I’d known for several years. Even the casual observer could tell that she was completely devoted to her husband and three children. All five of them worked in the family business, and I often wondered if it was healthy having them spend so much time together. I knew that she had been born in Cuba, but I’d never heard her talk about her past. I asked her about the adjustment to Miami when she arrived from Cuba. I was not prepared for what I was about to hear.
Maria said that she was a product of Operation Pedro Pan, a program initiated by the Catholic Church that allowed Cuban families to send their children to the United States in post-Revolution Cuba. She was sent to live in Miami. At age eight. By herself. She was reunited with her eleven year old cousin, who had come several months before. However, as the two young girls were getting adjusted, Maria found out her six year old brother was also sent to the United States – to a foster home in Yakima, Washington.
Maria and her cousin arranged to be transferred to Yakima, to be with her brother. The three children were assigned to a foster home with an older couple, although Maria and her brother continued to rely on their cousin for guidance and support. The foster parents had strict house rules and the kids were not allowed to speak Spanish. Maria’s cousin and the foster mother did not get along. While Maria and her brother were in school one day, their cousin, and all her belongings, were moved out of the home. They returned home from school and she was gone. They received no explanation.
Four and a half years later, Maria and her brother were reunited with their parents in Omaha, Nebraska. My heart ached to hear about the happy reunion. Maria paused at this point in her story and said, “I try very hard not to remember that time, because it makes me sad. I remember being a child, and then no longer a child.”
Since Maria and her brother had spent four years without speaking Spanish, they had forgotten how. Consequently, all the questions and emotions at their reunion were made even more difficult by a language barrier between the kids and their parents. They also had to process the fact that they were sent to live in the United States, on their own, while two male siblings remained in Cuba with their parents. The atmosphere, the rules and routines were all different in their new home. It was a struggle.
I have to be honest with you. I heard the general story from Maria at dinner and it amazed me, but she gave me the version with the edges smoothed over. Then Maria filled in the details of the story via email, which I read while I sat at breakfast at the Café Metro on 7th Avenue in Midtown New York. As I finished reading, I pushed away my uneaten breakfast and sat in numbed silence. I blinked away tears while I read her email a second and third time.
I had seen Maria dozens of times and found her friendly, even sweet. I now had a knot in my stomach and wanted to do something to reach out to her, to say something, or provide some gesture of understanding. As if to rescue me, Maria closed her email with two thoughts. The first was an explanation of how she reached peace with what happened to her as a child. She described a conversation with a man who was also born in Cuba. He said, “let me tell you the story of a little boy whose parents did not make the sacrifice, and who was indoctrinated by the government…”
The second was an expression of the blessings that God has poured on her, by allowing her to marry a man who is one of the kindest souls on earth. Together they have three wonderful children.
Now I understand why Maria and her family work together in the business. Family is everything.
I might have seen Maria a hundred more times and never known her story. It would have been my loss.