Skip to content

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.

12 Comments Post a comment
  1. Dale Garner #

    Your point is well taken. I remember a conversation with a roomie about one of the other brothers. He could not understand the seemingly narrow minded view of the other. I stated that we could never know all the experiences and influences someone has had in their lives that have led to their point of view and that many times without deep reflection they might not know either. So it is with good stories and bad but the opportunity to find those things out is what expands all of us given the chance.

    February 1, 2012
    • Karl Sprague #

      Dale, we’re all products of our collective experiences and it’s impossible to know what’s under the surface – unless you ask. Sometimes what you find out is touching, and sometimes it’s scary, but revealing nonetheless.

      February 1, 2012
  2. Amy Mangum #

    Karl – another wonderful, insightful, tear rendering story. I believe that your early childhood has a huge impact on the person you become. Not all childhoods are happy but that doesn’t mean your later life won’t be grand. Anxiously awaiting for your next thought provoking article.

    From the Mangum Family To Yours – All The Best

    February 1, 2012
    • Karl Sprague #

      Amy, so true. I’m always amazed by the people who rise above the difficult, painful circumstances and become a positive influence on others. You admire them, wonder how they did it – and vow to be a little more like them. Thanks. – Karl

      February 1, 2012
  3. Wow, Karl, just wow…what a powerful, beautiful tale. What a story teller you are! Once again, you brought your subject to life for me, although you didn’t have to do that with George. ;)
    Well done!

    February 1, 2012
    • Karl Sprague #

      Viki, thank you. Bringing George to life is impossible – he’s life personified – in capital letters. :) – Karl

      February 1, 2012
  4. Karl, I know you had told me about this story but reading your words really brought it alive to me. There is a powerful message of hope here not only in Maria’s journey through pain to peace but also in your message. It reminds us that listening with our hearts can be so empowering,not only for the listener but for the person pouring out her story. Thank you for this beautiful story!

    February 1, 2012
    • Karl Sprague #

      Kathy, you have great insight and a gentle touch – I love your comment that “listening with our hearts can be so empowering.” I think you do that naturally. I need to take a lesson – and do it more often. – Karl

      February 1, 2012
  5. Mike Mason #

    This happens to me when I teach. You never know what is going on at home in the life of a teenager. Some work 40 or more hours per week to help support their family. Some live in homes where drugs are used or dealt. And some have no one who keeps tabs on them at all. Apathy does more damage that hate.

    You are showing that you have insight and are able to express it. Keep up the good work.

    Mase

    February 2, 2012
    • Karl Sprague #

      Mase, you must see stories coming into school every day. I hope the ones that uplift you help offset the ones that break your heart. – Karl

      February 3, 2012
  6. Jeff Arnold #

    People like Maria are so inspirational…I have a business partner from El Salvador with a story similar to Maria’s. Often he expresses his appreciation for the assistance provided in opening our two “Poquito Mas” restaurants, and graciously tells me HE is blessed by our partnership. I always have to correct him and tell him he has that backwards! I am clearly the lucky one…finance guys are a “dime a dozen,” but operators like my partner, Edgar, who succeed in the restaurant industry, dispite a mountain of disadvantages, are so inspiring.

    February 3, 2012
    • Karl Sprague #

      Jeff, I guess I need to be checking with you regarding a future story about Edgar. It also sounds like you’ve both found the right partner. It’s a blessing to be able to work with someone who inspires you. Good luck with Poquito Mas!

      February 3, 2012

Leave a Reply

You may use basic HTML in your comments. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS