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Maria de la Luz Reyes: A Thanksgiving gift made me wonder — were we really poor?

Maria de la Luz Reyes

Hispanic Link News Service

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 21 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

Most of my classmates and I all lived in the same barrio in Amarillo, Texas. On the surface we all seemed the same. Required school uniforms blurred our differences. Girls wore white blouses, navy blue pleated skirts and white socks with black-and-white saddle oxfords. Boys wore khaki pants and shirts, a blue necktie and black shoes. No one seemed to be dressed better or worse than any other child. No one stood out as more unique or special.

Most families in the barrio had five or more children. At the time, there were eight children in ours, including me, but my oldest brother had already left home. The ninth child would come a couple of years later. And most of the fathers worked as laborers for the Santa Fe Railroad and lived in the concrete section houses provided by the company for their families.

Now, more than half a century later, I still recall a particular chilly November afternoon when I was playing marbles with my twin brothers and their friends. I was about 5 years old, not yet in school. We were playing several yards away from the end of the Santa Fe Yard section houses.

That's when I heard the sound of a car engine. This was rare because none of the families in the section houses owned cars. I turned to notice Miss Kelley's black Chevrolet drive up and park close to our section house.

Miss Kelley didn't live in the barrio, but we all knew she was the director of Catholic Charities. I recognized her immediately because, although I was the youngest child in the family, I often accompanied Mom to Miss Kelley's office to get clothing, shoes and winter coats for me and my siblings.

From a distance, I watched her open the trunk of her car and walk toward our house. I waited until she headed back to her car, then I ran home. By the time I got to our front door, Miss Kelley was walking briskly back to her car, the green scarf around her neck flowing in the breeze behind her. There at our door, she had left a basket wrapped in clear cellophane tied with a bright orange ribbon.

Certain she was looking for a poor family, I tried to get her attention.

"Miss Kelley, MISS KELLEY!" I yelled as I ran after the car.

She looked back and waved, 'Tell your mother I came by."

"But, Miss Kelley, you left a Thanksgiving basket at our door!" I guess she didn't hear me. She slid onto her car seat, started the engine and drove away. Didn't she realize her mistake?

"BUT MISS KELLY!" I yelled even louder. YOU LEFT A BASKET FOR THE POOR. We're -- we're not poor..." my voice faded to a whisper. For a split second, I wondered, but just as quickly, I dismissed the thought from my head.

When Mom returned home from work, we helped her rip off the cellophane paper and we tore into the basket. We beamed and giggled as we grabbed and examined its contents. There was a small turkey, cans of green beans, corn, yams, a bag of sugar, pumpkin pie filling, a bag of walnuts, marshmallows, stuffing, some flour and more food items.

Jesse, one of the twins, pulled out a can of corn.

"Hey, this is the can I took to school when we were collecting food for the poor!"

"It is not," Annie said.

"Yes, it is! Look! I printed my initials 'JR' on the back." Johnny, the other twin, chimed in: "Maybe it's mine. I put my initials on my can, too."

"You have the same initials," Mom said, settling matters. That brought peals of laughter. A couple of cans that we had donated for the poor from our sparse cupboards had made their way back home to us. The irony was puzzling for me. Were we really poor?

I looked up at Mom. She was laughing. "Bendito sea Dios," she said, a tear trickling down her cheek. "Blessed be God."

Maria de la Luz Reyes is professor emerita of education, University of Colorado-Boulder. She is author/editor of "Words Were All We Had: Becoming Biliterate Against All the Odds" (2011), available at www.tcpress.com. Email: maria.reyes@colorado.edu.

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