Illustration of the the author's living siutation
My father-in-law, born and raised in the Philippines, the son of Christian missionaries, grew up with cooks, houseboys, and the like, and when he heard about our plan to hire a live-in Mexican nanny, he remarked, “The thing about servants is that you end up getting all involved in their personal lives.”
His tone was probably noncommittal. But I recoiled, silently rejecting what I took to be the implicit corollary: that I would want to keep my life unentangfrd with the likes of certain people. Now I look back and see in his statement the simple truth of it, rather than snobbery. And I laugh at myself for being so unprepared for what happened, having been so clearly warned.
A live-in servant was to me as alien as a personal bearer. Though I’ve had one now for nine years, I still never say “servant” in conversation. I say “babysitter.” Even my housewife mom and plumber dad hired a babysitter now and then. Having a “housekeeper” would have struck them as laughably high-toned. I grew up, went to a good university, worked for ten years, then fretted over what I’d do for child care long before getting pregnant — without ever once imagining myself with a live-in nanny.
The size of our dwelling, just 800 square feet, precluded it. With two tiny bedrooms, where would a nanny sleep—in the (one-car) garage? (Since then I’ve heard of those who do. But then I was an innocent.) I still remember the jolt that ran through me when I realized there was a way another person might be squeezed into my household.
About a month after bringing my son home from the hospital, I was chatting with a friend whom I’ll call Julia Bartlett. (I’ve changed some names and details to protect the privacy of those involved.) Julia had had her first baby nine months before me. While living in Del Mar, she had found a Mexican woman in her 50s who came in daily to look after the baby. But when the Bartletts moved to rural Escondido, Julia, an accountant, was failing in her attempts to find a replacement sitter. One day the Mexican handyman whom the Bartletts hired occasionally announced that he would bring them up a girl from his home town in Michoacán. Out on the property in back of their house, Nando built a wooden structure about the size of a small construction trailer to serve as the girl’s living quarters. He’d disappeared for a while, then showed up one day with Ana, who seemed to be loving, intelligent, tidy, hardworking, conscientious, and grateful to be receiving $350 a month in exchange for working 12 hours a day, six days a week. Recounting what had happened, Julia sounded like she was partly in shock, partly in ecstasy.
Before that conversation ended, I saw the future. We live in Clairemont, on a lot that abuts an alley. At the innermost corner of our property, a previous owner had created a fenced-in area where a recreational vehicle could be kept. The same night as my conversation with Julia, I was badgering Jack, my husband: couldn’t we place a house trailer there? Get water and electricity into it fairly easily? Jack was appalled. Still adjusting to having a baby, he hated the thought of adding yet another person to the mix — indeed creating another mini-household. But I was unshakable. The cost of placing Jason (our baby) in a day-care home plus occasional babysitting bills would probably exceed $350 a month, I pointed out. And imagine the freedom: we could go out at a moment’s notice. Imagine the luxury of being so close to our child (we both worked primarily at home, in an office that adjoined our house). Even the problem of finding someone seemed to solve itself when Julia told me that Ana had a friend back home named Celia who was interested in working here for a while.
On April 20,1985, we bought a used, 17-foot house trailer from an Escondido RV dealer. It was shabby, but reasonably clean, and no worse, we told ourselves, than the average spare bedroom. It had a built-in refrigerator, stove, sink, and dining nook. A tiny bathroom concealed a toilet connected to a holding tank (one inclined to stink, we would discover). As spring unfolded and Jason learned to smile, I shopped for odds and ends to augment the trailer’s homeyness. I found a cube-shaped television, powder-puff pink, at ANA’s discount appliance outlet off Mission Gorge Road. At Target, I picked up a set of sturdy pink plastic dishes.
From Ana, a tall, thin woman with a melancholy air, I gleaned only fragmentary insight into the character of her friend. Celia was 25 and divorced, I learned, the mother of three children: a girl around seven and two boys, one five and one just three. She spoke no English (nor did Ana), but I knew Spanish, though not well enough to comprehend much about the vegetable-packing plant where the two young women had toiled and become best friends.
Celia with Jason
Nando agreed to bring Celia back on his next return trip. On May 15, the date of their projected arrival, I cut a bunch of daisies from my Euryops bush and placed them in a vase in the trailer. But a phone call from the Bartletts made our stomachs tighten: Nando had shown up, tipsy, with a story about missing some connection with Celia. He’d come without her.
The empty trailer seemed to mock us; the day of my return to work loomed. A call from Ana confirmed that Celia still wanted to come. It seemed that Nando had simply decided against the bother of escorting her.
Celia would have to journey here alone, we concluded. I made my first acquaintance with Western Union and sent her money for a plane ticket. As for the problem of getting her across the border, I decided to hide her in the trunk of my Isuzu and drive her across.
Looking back on that decision. I’m amused by how much our lives — Celia’s and mine — had merged even by that point.
I knew virtually nothing about her, but I’d lived in San Diego long enough to understand the dangers of the alien-smuggling routes through the border canyons. For her to cross that way would expose her to the risk of being robbed or raped. Neither Jack nor I wanted that on our consciences. On the other hand. I’d been traveling to Tijuana (for Spanish lessons) once or twice a week for at least two years. My car was an aging diesel, whose cream-colored body bore many dents and scratches. Yet not once had an inspector ever asked me to open the trunk. Now I pondered whether a person could safely travel there. As a test, I slipped into it one quiet morning when none of my neighbors appeared to be watching. When lack closed the lid, I found that a fair amount of light and air leaked in. Next I turned my attention to plotting how I would react in the unlikely event of an inspection. I would feign astonishment. I’d say this unknown young woman must have seen me open the trunk with the lever next to the driver’s seat, when I stopped to shop at the Calimax. Then she must have popped herself in, in a desperate attempt to cross the border. This story soothed me.
On the morning of June 13, dressed in red, I waited for Celia at the Tijuana airport. I had wired her a note about looking for la señora en rojo, but watching the crowd that streamed out of the plane from Guadalajara, I wondered how we’d ever find each other. And then I knew: she had to be the short, thin woman striding down the hall, battered duffel on her shoulder, grin on her face. I was exuberant, stammering clumsy Spanish, but as sincere as a puppy in my welcome.
I loaded her into the front of my car, then drove to la Calandria, an unpretentious restaurant in the river zone shopping center. I ordered coffee for us both, and as we grasped the cups and sipped the hot, cinnamon-scented brew, I struggled to explain my plan. We would drive to Calimax, to substantiate my cover story (which I wanted her to understand well enough to corroborate, if necessary). Celia seemed to grasp it all, and though nervous, she wasn’t quailing.
I studied her more closely. Her short dark hair was badly cut, her teeth ravaged by too much sugar and bad dentistry. She smelled of soured sweat. But in other incarnations, she would be beautiful, her skin the color of maple syrup, her eyes huge and set beneath arching brows as delicately feathered as those of a model on a magazine cover.
I have no real memory of how I loaded her in the trunk at the Calimax on that sunny Thursday morning. I do know that when I got to the border line, my heart was pounding. I smoked a cigarette, and if I had driven right up to the gate, surely the guard would have seen the tremor in my hand. But it took me 40 minutes to reach the inspection point, by which time a great sense of calm had taken over me. “What’s your citizenship?” I met his eyes: American. And what was I bringing back from Mexico. Nothing. Nothing.
On the U.S. side, I took the Palm Avenue exit then headed for the Silver Strand, thinking to unload Celia at the state beach. But I felt too self-conscious in the presence of the surfers there, and further north, the Coronado Shores complex contained more traffic than I expected. In some alley in central Coronado, I finally summoned the nerve to let her out. Celia’s face was the color of raw sirloin and glistening with sweat. Yet she was safe; we surfed home on a wave of jubilation. Two days later, I was writing in my journal that “those were the best, most comradely moments” we’d shared together. Then the awkward adjustments had crowded them out.
As soon as Celia and I had arrived at the house, Jack and I tried to get her to eat. When she said she wasn’t hungry, we urged her to shower, to settle into the trailer, to spend the rest of the day recovering from her long journey. Instead she hung around in the house (lonely? or incapable of loafing on her first afternoon in this terrifying new world?). I still see her as she was in those first hours, a silent, zombie figure moving a rag over our not-too-dusty TV set. Sometime in the mid-afternoon, she cooked herself a fried egg, and that evening she went to bed without supper, pleading lack of appetite.
I knew that Julia had purchased some clothes for Ana, so the next day I carted Celia off to Gemco to follow suit. I bought some jeans and a few cheap tops, and Celia seemed rigid with the mortification of this clumsy charity. But wasn’t it my duty as her patrona? At least it was fleeting. That evening we confronted the question that had most disturbed me in the prospect of someone living with us: Where would she eat? Breakfast and lunch at our house were noisy and hurried, perhaps merrier with more, but Jack and I looked upon dinner as our time for private communion. We needn’t have worried. Again she turned down food when we ate — then about 8:30 p.m. came in from her trailer to do the dinner dishes, wolfing down a piece of chicken while standing in the kitchen.
We got a break from her on Sunday, her day off, when we showed her how to take the three buses necessary to reach Ana in Escondido. Monday we started our first real workweek together, inventing the patterns that would become our routines.
Routine so soon grinds away the snagging rough spots. After one week. Jack and I whispered to each other that we might survive the transition. The middle of the second week, something happened that made me sure we would. I was working in my office when a sound caught my ear, a rhythmic noise that came in bursts. I made my way toward it, perplexed; certain I’d never heard this noise before. Ten paces short of the living room, I stared. Jason, four months old, was lying on his back and laughing for the first time in his life, emitting not some weak-kneed coo, but great guffaws that welled up from deep within him, shook his tiny body. Celia shot me a glance, assessing me. Then her hand appeared above the baby’s face, dangling a set of keys. More guffaws. She and I said nothing, but astonishment and pleasure connected us, made us a merged adult presence suddenly confronted with evidence that the ultimate ground of Being was...gut-wrenchingly funny.
The other thing that drew us together in those earliest days was her capture by the Border Patrol. Now I look back and marvel that Jack and I didn’t just give up. Disaster after only 17 days! But we were the rawest of rookies, she the wettest of wetbacks. Some misstep was inevitable. It came on a Sunday when Ana had made the trip down to visit Celia. Sometime around noon, the two announced that they were heading for the beach. They had changed into shorts and were giggling with self-consciousness. Jack and I joked with them that now they’d fool the migra for sure; now they looked like Americans.
When they weren’t back by four that afternoon, I started worrying. Around six we got a call from the Bartletts. They’d heard from Nando, who apparently had made a date to meet with the girls that afternoon. The three of them were waiting for a bus somewhere along Torrey Pines Road, when Nando had spotted a Border Patrol car and bolted, panicking the girls into trying to flee, inexpertly. Around 1:00 a.m. we heard from a mournful-sounding Celia that she and Ana had been caught, driven around all afternoon in a paddy wagon, made to sit for several hours of processing in an INS station, then dumped off in Tijuana. They had about $70 between them and would get a hotel for the night.
Now there were two of them to transport back again, and I felt scared to try carrying both in my trunk. The rear of the car might sag more; the Fourth of July was approaching and the inspectors might be searching for fireworks. Conferring with the Bartletts, we decided that Herb (Julia’s husband) should draft Nando to serve as coyote. Early Monday night, the two men drove to the girls’ hotel in the Zona Norte, where Herb talked to the miserable Ana and Celia, then left Nando to be their shepherd.
Jack and I braced for a call in the middle of that night, telling us to pick them all up in San Ysidro. But no word came that night, nor the next day. Herb finally telephoned about 10:00 p.m. Tuesday. Nando had just called from Tijuana, very drunk, and had declared that the girls had changed their minds; they had met some guys and were running off with them. They were “no good,” Nando muttered thickly, and we were well rid of them.
The Bartletts seemed ready to agree. Jack and I felt otherwise. Two and a half weeks isn’t enough to know anything, really, about anyone. But we were as close as you can come to knowing that Celia wasn’t irresponsible. Already, I couldn’t simply delete her from our life. We decided I would drive down to Tijuana the next morning, to try to corroborate Nando’s story.
I found the hotel readily enough, found Ana’s name on the register. But the girls had already checked out, earlier that morning. I was trudging back to my car, shoulders drooping, when along the way, in the most amazing coincidence in my life, I glimpsed Ana, accompanied by Celia and two Mexican men in their early 20s. I caught up with them in the middle of Constitucion, and we started gabbling right there in the street, edging over to the line of parked cars. Celia and Ana looked exhausted. Nando had abandoned them, after getting angry and drunk, they told me heatedly. I was in the midst of explaining that I had been afraid to smuggle them both when a third young man, unknown by any of us, butted into our ensemble. This man had been standing off to our side. Good-looking, he was dressed in jeans and a sport shirt. His questions were brusque, badgering; What had I been afraid of? What were we up to? Where were we going? A portly, middle-aged man appeared, producing a badge of the Mexican state judicial police. Seconds later, they were hustling the five of us into the back of an unmarked car, driving away from the center of town.
I will spare you all the details of our session with this pair. In retrospect, I think we must have looked odd, and that was enough to make the two cops pounce. Once in the car, it didn’t take me long to reflect that I had done no wrong. That made me unafraid, even self-righteous. I started to badger the badge-bearers, insisted they take us to the station. I also showed them a press identification card issued by the San Diego Police Department. Maybe that press card made no difference to the outcome, which was that — after effusive reassurances that no wrong had been done by either side — they released Celia, Ana, and me.
Out on the broiling sidewalk, Celia seemed to make another judgment of me. They had met their two companions during their day with the Border Patrol, she confided, and the men had tried to help them make their way through the canyons on Monday, when they’d been caught a second time. The two men had been muy respectuoso — unlike Nando, who’d started drinking and acting jealous as soon as he got to their hotel. Eventually, he had demanded that one or both of the girls sleep with him, and when they refused, he’d laughed that they were on their own.
So scratch Nando the coyote. By this point I was sufficiently irritated by him and impatient with the mess that I loaded Celia and Ana into the trunk and smuggled them across the border and back to Clairemont. Two days later, I was gushing in a letter to my parents about how well things were going between Celia and me. I kept a copy of that letter, in which I praised her spunk, her levelheadedness, the sense of humor she retained during the Tijuana crisis. “I think she’s much less timid than Ana, and she seems to have a much easier time being open and direct with me than Ana does with Julia,” I wrote.
From a 25-year-old Mexican woman who’d had three of her own children, I had expected competence at such baby-tending basics as diapering, burping, feeding. But in the days and weeks that followed, we discovered that Celia had rarer assets, too, among them a keen mind that took in everything around her. What she saw, she remembered; soon she was routinely finding things that we misplaced. I never once saw her forget about Jason while her thoughts wandered off (and I was scanning for slips). Celia’s alertness would have been natural in some edgy, urgent person, say, an air traffic controller. But she also owned a preternatural stock of patience. She could hold and walk and sit with Jason, yielding to his six-month-old rhythms with a grace I never commanded.
I was one to ward off boredom, baby and adult, energetically. When I heard that San Diego State University had an “infant stimulation program” (in which aspiring early-childhood educators got to play with and observe babies), I signed up Jason. My in-laws agreed to share the chauffeuring duties, and I had Celia go along, urging her to walk around and explore the campus while Jason was being stimulated and observed. Living with her, after all, felt in many ways like living with a foreign exchange student; I took some pleasure at feeding her new sights, American visions. But rather than wander, she usually stayed in the large gaudy playroom, watching the young blonde students in their Aztec sweatshirts exclaiming over the babies. If she saw any comedy in the contrast with her homeland, she said nothing.
She wasn’t one to chatter or unload unwanted confidences.
I had to draw tidbits from her, and this I sometimes did at the end of the day, when I left my desk and came to reclaim my baby. Sometimes we would sit together and watch him crawl or balance or put toys in his mouth, and I would ask delicate questions about her ex-husband or her children or her parents (with whom her children lived). She doled out pieces of her past that were digestible, which whetted my taste for more. When she talked about her children, I sensed heartache over the separation. But she didn’t flaunt this pain. It spilled out only rarely, as on the day her mother called to say that Celia’s middle child had been stung by a poisonous scorpion. Celia emitted a cry that was animal in its intensity; grilling her mother about the boy (who was recovering well), her voice was deep and hoarse in its shaking fear. Later that day, she told me that every night out in the trailer she fell down on her knees to beg God to watch out for her children. I was surprised; even in those early days, Celia never struck me as a woman much preoccupied with religion.
We were surprised, too, on her birthday, when we presented her with a cake and a sky-blue warm-up suit, and she blurted that no one had ever done this for her before. Her birthday came in late November. It was around then that we broached the question of whether she would go home for Christmas, and if she did, whether she would come back to work for us another year. She didn’t answer us instantly, but I don’t think she thought about it for long. She loved Jason, loved her cozy trailer, which she’d adorned with photos of her children. Every night she carried out her dinner on a tray to consume it there in happy privacy and watch telenovelas on Channel 6. (We’d told her early on that we could clean up our own dishes; that we thought she deserved a break from us after being in the house from 7:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.) We, in turn, adored her. On her birthday, I wrote in my journal that “being around (her) now feels like being around my sister. We joke a lot, gossip (some). I feel much more comfortable leaving Jason with her than with Jack (though it’s kind of too bad to say so. But Celia knows Jason better in some ways...).”
In my memory, everything about her 1985 Christmas leave-taking seems golden. We paid for her round-trip ticket (our gift to her), and I shopped for presents for her children as pleasurably as I had for my own nephews and nieces. A day or two before the holiday, we drove her and her bulging borrowed suitcases to the chaos at the Tijuana Airport. Dressed in a glittering, heavyshouldered sweater, wearing thick dramatic makeup, she looked like a distant, wealthy cousin to the sweaty girl who'd sauntered off the plane in June. We knew we’d see her again, soon, and that she would bring us back the working parent’s Holy Grail: the guarantee of a full year of the very highest quality child care.
There did remain the nuisance of getting her back across the border. But a Mexican friend had offered us the hope of a permanent solution. This friend, Beatriz, worked in a Tijuana office where she said she could easily concoct some phony pay records for Celia. If Celia took these records to the American consulate (to prove her gainful employment in Tijuana), she might be able to obtain a border-crossing permit, the so-called mica, which enables Tijuana residents to come to San Diego to visit friends and spend money. Celia still would be breaking the law by working for us — but we would at least be spared the risks and inconveniences of alien-smuggling.
So when I picked up Celia, two weeks after her triumphant return home, I drove her to Beatriz’s house, where she settled into a spare bedroom. After a day or two, she got up before dawn, joined the long line in front of the American embassy, waited for many hours, then faced a bureaucrat who turned her down summarily. Once again, we resorted to my car trunk. This time I loaded her in Beatriz’s driveway, and once again we passed the inspection without incident.
Our inability to outfox the system annoyed me throughout 1986. Celia never again was caught by the INS, and every month increased her camouflage, made herself more American, less vulnerable to detection. Yet we hoped she might decide to stay with us yet another year, in which case we’d face the border-crossing risk again. Every day, I knew, untold numbers of Mexicans crossed the border with legal micas. Some crossed with phony ones, though I had no idea where you got those.
For a while, I turned my attention to constructing a false American identity for Celia, starting with a birth certificate. I knew that copies of these are available from the county health department — but only to requesters who can supply the maiden name of the mother named on the certificate. One day I even went down to the central library’s newspaper room and pored over microfilm of 25-year-old newspapers, hoping to find the death notice of some Latina baby, hoping that I’d be able to trace the mother’s maiden name through the death certificate. I had no luck. So when Celia did indeed decide to go home and then return for another year, all we’d come up with was a more elaborate version of what we’d tried before.
That second year, Celia had taken a bit longer to make her decision. I think she was then probably at the end of the maximum amount of time she had envisioned being away from her children. Her youngest, three when she left, was now nearing his fifth birthday. He’d start kindergarten without her if she stayed. Her nine-year-old daughter would all too soon be approaching those boundaries where childhood runs into puberty. But I think the passage of the months had wrought what once would have been unthinkable: she was getting used to being away from them. She could tell herself that all three children were healthy and secure with guardians who were much more like parents than abuelitos. Whenever she turned her mind to them, I’m sure she hungered to be with them. But by the end of 1986, thoughts of them no longer were assailing her hourly. She was by then too immersed in, too distracted by, the details of our lives.
In the spring of that year, I had taken Celia back with me to Cleveland, where my father had lung cancer. We stayed only about a week, but in the course of it Celia saw something far more hidden than the details of my family members’ sex lives: she watched how my father and my mother and my siblings and I faced death. She heard the way my father’s ghastly cough echoed through the house. She observed my mother’s urgent desire to give him something, anything, that would numb his terrible pain — though the painkillers stole from her, from all of us, the living presence of this man we all loved without reservation.
He didn’t die that week. That came a few weeks later, and when I flew back to Cleveland again for the funeral, I left Jason behind me for the first time, secure that Celia and lack would take good care of him. Almost as soon as I got back to San Diego, workers began ripping apart my house, which lack and I had decided to enlarge dramatically: expanding the living room and adding an entrance hall, along with a second-story master bedroom suite. In the months that followed, we were assailed by screaming electric saws and hammering headaches and more sheet rock dust than we thought possible and maddening delays. Jack and Jason and I camped in the tiny section of the building that wasn’t being changed, compared to which Celia’s trailer seemed luxurious. She took Jason out there for his naps when the sun didn’t heat it too unbearably. All of us rejoiced as the new spaces finally opened up, and the debris receded, and the new paint went on, the new porcelain cabinet handles from Home Depot, the new dressing-room-style light strips in the downstairs bathroom. When the last worker left, we felt the pride, not just of ownership, but of survival and shared creation.
Celia felt it too. Though her primary job was watching Jason, he took long naps every afternoon. Two mornings a week he went to nursery school (no longer at San Diego State, but at a nearby church-run facility). That left Celia more than enough time to do housework. She hated cooking and had let us know this early on, so we never asked her to do anything more in the kitchen than preparing our dinnertime bowl of greens and chopped raw vegetables. She developed a schedule for the other chores. She’d do the laundry Mondays and Fridays, clean the bathrooms once a week. Every other day, she would vacuum our new Oriental rug in the living room and the old green wall-to-wall we’d reinstalled in Jason’s bedroom.
Cleaning was something she did competently, but her greatest aptitude was for creating order. In the master bathroom, she would sweep our toothpaste and contact lens solutions and moisturizers from the gleaming new tiled counter top and conceal them neatly under the sink (from where we would have to extract them all again that very evening). But the place looked like a hotel bathroom when she was done; she liked that pristine austerity. In Jason’s room, she would dump out the contents of his drawers and refold his little shirts and pants into geometrically satisfying stacks. Or she would organize the books on his shelf, not alphabetically (she wasn’t that literate) but by size, from The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Quick as a Cricket on down to The Tale of Peter Rabbit and the tiny Golden Books.
Sometimes when Jason was napping or playing with a toddler friend, she would sprawl out on the green carpeting and study the books herself. As Jason had learned to talk that year, she had picked up words alongside him, then sped up and passed him by. Though I pleaded with her to speak Spanish to him, I felt tugged too by maternal pride in her English. By Halloween of 1986, when we bought pumpkins and made her carve one for her trailer, she could say things like, “I no can do it! I draw very bad!” But we joked and made her do it anyway, and she knew enough English to say to Jason, “What preetty, preetty pumpkins.”
That year, when the Christmas decorations went up, we urged her to return to Michoacán for a three-month stay. We found a temporary replacement for her, and on the day of Celia’s departure, she and I took this roundabout route. Very early in the morning, we drove to Mexicali. In the Mexican state capital, Celia and I made for the government office where local residents apply for Mexican passports. It took hours to complete all the steps of the application process, but we got assurances that she could pick up the document in 12 weeks. We then made the three-hour drive along the Mexican side of the border back to Tijuana’s airport, where she caught a plane to Guadalajara. Over the holidays, we nursed the hope that, once armed with a passport issued in Mexicali, she would better resemble a Baja local and thus would have a better chance of winning a border-crossing permit. Three months later, she did get the passport (another day trip to Mexicali) and returned to Tijuana. But when she repeated the drill at the consulate, she was turned down once again.
Celia in the authors trunk
I would have packed her once again into my trunk, smuggled her yet again that way, except for what happened on the day I picked Celia up at the airport and took her to the home of Beatriz. That afternoon, when I was heading back to Clairemont, alone, the border guard asked me to open my trunk for inspection. It was empty, of course. But I drove home frightened and dazed. Two beams pierced my mental fog: She could have been in my trunk. I would have been caught.
So by the time we learned that Celia failed to get the mica, Jack and I had come up with a new plan. I picked up Celia at Beatriz’s and drove her to Las Playas, Tijuana’s beachfront enclave. In those days, you could cruise right next to the cyclone fence just north of the seaside bullring; from your car, you could see right into Border Field State Park on the U.S. side. When Celia and I arrived there, we detected no sign of the migra's telltale green paddy wagons. She got out, ran down to the sand, and rounded the point where the fence broke off, hanging above the tide line like an unfinished sentence. I drove back to the border in suspense.
Jack was waiting on the American side, in the parking lot. Per our plan, he was carrying a birdwatching book, wearing binoculars, waiting for Celia to show up. We’d figured that he ' would be wise to stage a little charade, act like she happened to catch his eye, and he was asking her out for coffee. (Gee, Mr. Border Patrol Agent, how was I to know she was an illegal alien?) But the scene Jack discovered at the park made him laugh aloud. With the INS nowhere in sight, the place was filled with schoolchildren from Las Playas. Families were crossing back and forth as if no border existed. Jack became so engrossed by it all that he forgot to watch for Celia; later, she would regale me with a reenactment of what it took to get his attention. “Psssst, ” she’d practically shouted, across the parking lot. “Jack,” she called him. “JACK!”
Though I wasn’t present, that scene sticks in my memory. I think it was the first time Celia used Jack’s first name. She’d begun our life together addressing us as señor and señora. The subservience implied by those titles bothered me, but I figured she’d be more uncomfortable calling us anything else. So we acquiesced, indeed got used to the titles, just as I got used to calling her tu, while she addressed me back as Usted. I wish I could remember more precisely how this changed. But the realignments between Celia and me came so gradually, so undramatically. From the start, I think I treated her as an equal, a comrade-in-arms in our campaign to raise Jason and keep a tidy house. I think she got used to that, and somehow we came to the day when the señoras and the Usteds sounded silly and distracting, like clanking tin cans tied on by someone else and finally lost in the rush down the roadway.
By 1987, she and I had come to know so much about each other. I’d heard all about her younger brother’s drinking and her spiteful older sister. I could picture her youngest son’s mischievous independence; her middle son’s astonishing blue-green eyes; her daughter’s dance triumphs. I knew, too, when Celia started sleeping with the Mexican boyfriend she finally acquired here. (She asked my help in getting contraceptives.) She, in turn, knew all the big things about me, the things that any good friend would know. But she also saw the smaller, more intimate details that almost no one glimpsed, save Jack. She knew exactly when I colored my hair and what shade of L’Or^al I used to color it with. She knew what the inside of my underwear drawer looked like. She could have told you how Jack and I acted when we’d had a major fight.
One thing I didn’t know about Celia was how she saw her future. In the early years, she’d always insisted she was going back to Mexico, sooner rather than later. Occasionally, we would hear about some young Mexican woman who had abandoned children back there for a new life in the north, and Celia invariably expressed contempt for such people. Yet year after year, she chose to stay with us.
Then in the fall of 1988, when I was pregnant with my second child, she announced that the time had come; she wouldn’t return after the upcoming Christmas season. She’d missed too many years of her children’s lives. Her parents, in their late 60s, needed her. Jack and I could hardly quibble. We felt blessed to have had Celia’s help for as long as we did. Sometime early in December, we placed ads in the San Diego Union for a replacement, and as we started interviewing candidates, we told ourselves maybe we’d get lucky again, maybe our new baby would begin its life with a babysitter as wonderful as Celia had been.
I think of December of 1988 as the end of the first act of our life with Celia. It was the way the play was supposed to end, bittersweet, but with no regrets. At the airport, lack looked sad and Celia struggled for control. I wept openly. But I saw no alternative to her departure. We returned home to life with Berta, a young woman who’d impressed me by scooping up Jason and hugging him at first sight. It didn’t take long for a more sullen side of Berta to emerge. She was only 17, we discovered, not 20, as she’d told us in her interview. Some days she dressed like a slob, scuffing around in cheap flip-flops, her long black hair unkempt and greasy. The trailer, which Celia had cleaned lovingly before departing, filled with Berta’s soiled clothes and trash. Also, Jason didn’t seem to like Berta much. But we all told each other that adjustment to anyone — after Celia — was bound to be trying.
I think it was sometime in February when I heard from Celia’s boyfriend (who lived in the neighborhood) that Celia was thinking about coming back to San Diego. We didn’t hesitate but called her at her parents’ home, where she confirmed this. She sounded thrilled by the prospect of getting her job with us back again.
We didn’t talk much about what happened in her hometown, but I mentally filled in the blanks. I imagined her feeling trapped by the all-too-familiar streets, by family melodramas. After enjoying American-style independence for three and a half years, she surely must have squirmed under the strictures of her autocratic father. I imagined her reshouldering the domestic burdens of his house, burdens that came without the compensatory pleasure of a salary (by 1988, Jack and I had increased her pay to about $525 a month). I imagined that she missed us and missed Carlos, her boyfriend, and finally let all that sweep her north again.
I didn’t ask many questions. Having Celia back for my baby’s impending birth was a gift horse whose forequarters I had no intention of approaching. The baby was born early in May, and I recall a week or two of near-total domestic bliss.
I was nursing the baby, giving her my breast while sitting in the swivel rocker in the living room, when Celia told me that she was pregnant with Carlos’s baby. I felt a stab of cranky irritation: this was my time to be pampered, but now, suddenly, Celia would have the greatest claim to pampering. I struggled to hide my dismay, to pose neutral questions about her plans.
I knew she’d felt somewhat ambivalent about Carlos, though their involvement with each other had gradually deepened. Sometime after their romance had begun, we’d learned that Carlos was living in an even smaller, much more miserable trailer. It sounded awful, and we had told Celia that we wouldn’t mind if she invited him to live with her. He seemed a decent man, a lean, well-muscled fellow with the weathered good looks of a cowboy and none of the bad habits; he didn’t drink, didn't smoke, and showed no inclination to cheat on Celia. Eventually, we came to realize he was too shy to do so, too rigidly fixed in his routines. Those routines transferred easily enough to the trailer. (Despite her hatred of cooking, Celia cooked for Carlos every night; on my rare forays there I smelled oil and onions and chiles, whereas always before it had been odorless as a convent cell.) But Carlos had seemed gripped by too much inertia to marry Celia. The news of a baby changed that; immediately Fourth of July weekend, and we offered them the use of our house for the wedding party.
As Celia planned the details of the celebration, I fretted silently. Jack and I now had a boisterous four-and-a-half-year-old, a newborn, and a house that required more cleaning than ever. What would it be like to watch Celia scrubbing bathtubs, lugging my baby around, while her body grew heavier, ever more tired? I didn't worry for long. A week or two later, Celia announced that she and Carlos weren’t ready to start a family after all. She’d decided to have an abortion.
I drove her to the Beach Area Community Clinic, and later on I clucked sympathetically when Celia told me how the abortion counselor there turned out to be a closet abortion foe, one who had threatened her with all manner of spiritual repercussions if she took her baby’s life.
These threats outraged Celia, who went ahead and made an appointment for the procedure, to be done at a doctor’s office in Mission Valley. You have to count me squarely among those who believe abortion should not be illegal. At the same time, I’m profoundly thankful that I’ve never felt trapped by a pregnancy. To me, abortions are painful, bloody, sad reminders of failure. I also felt shamed that Celia’s decision to have one happened to serve my own interests so well.
I wound up driving her and Carlos to and from the doctor’s office; otherwise they would have had to go by bus. I’m glad I did. On the way home, Celia rolled up her eyes and fainted, and all that Carlos, mortified beyond words, could do was shrug and grin.
If the baby was canceled, the wedding proceeded. In retrospect, I think Celia was testing Carlos; if he’d backed out then, she would have ended the relationship. But he knew he was trapped. After the ceremony, they feasted on came asada, which they ate with their friends on our patio.
Just three months later, Celia told me she was pregnant again — and this time there would be no abortion. Instead she would go back to Mexico at Christmas and remain in her hometown to deliver the baby there, at a fraction of the cost she would incur in San Diego. Carlos would remain behind, working at the menial job that he’d held for years, though he would escort her home and meet her family.
In November, Jack and I went back to interviewing; a domineering African woman, a beaten-looking American divorcee, and a bubbly German student stand out in my memory. But we settled on Elena, a 20-year-old Mexican who spoke English fairly well. This time, I didn’t cry when I said goodbye to Celia. With a husband in San Diego, she seemed likely to return with his baby somehow, sometime. I suspect that even she never dreamt she’d be back as soon as she was. During the course of that Christmas vacation, Carlos cracked up a motorcycle and spent days in a coma, with only Celia keeping a vigil at his side. By around February it appeared that he probably would recover, but he was still often confused and disoriented, and Celia would have to accompany him back to San Diego.
They got themselves across the border. In the minds of Jack and me, this was one responsibility that Celia and Carlos’s marriage had relieved us of, and if Celia disagreed, she never gave us any hint. She likewise never intimated that we should fire Elena to take her back, and we didn’t volunteer to do so. Elena, the passing weeks had revealed, was lonely, superstitious, and quirky. She believed, for example, that beet juice was good for her skin, so she smeared it on her face, in place of blush. But she cleaned house well and tended the baby possessively. In the spring of 1990, as Celia’s pregnancy advanced, Celia and I settled in to merely being friends.
In this new mode, we stopped speaking in Spanish altogether. (She needed the practice speaking English.) She and Carlos had found a one-bedroom apartment on Clairemont Drive, and sometimes I would drop in just to visit. Other times there was work to be done: I found out what she needed to do to get prenatal care, paid for by Medi-Cal. There were forms to be filled out and hours of waiting to be endured at the welfare office in Kearny Mesa. I helped her find a pediatrician who seemed to welcome Medi-Cal patients. And one night early in July, she called me as we’d prearranged, so that I could drive her and Carlos to Sharp Hospital and hold her hand and tell her to breathe and cheer her on throughout the night and all the next morning, while Carlos, paralyzed with embarrassment and befuddlement, grinned in a corner of the room until his 11-pound son was born.
They named him Enrique. When he was about two months old, around September of 1990, Celia left for Mexico again with him. I forget now how she explained this move. (She and Carlos were getting along as well as they ever did.) I began to believe that Celia had developed a secret taste for the drama, the pathos, of her leave-takings — on each side of the border. Certainly she had become by this point a woman classically split between her one life in Mexico and her very different existence here.
This time I knew she’d be back, and as had happened before, I heard about it first from Carlos, around February or March of 1991. Elena had quit in November, and we’d hired an older Mexican woman, Juanita, who I had hoped might mother us all. We had prepared for her arrival almost as diligently as we originally had readied ourselves for Celia. For years, Celia’s trailer had leaked in every serious rainstorm. It was now more than 20 years old; we felt ashamed to ask anyone to sleep in it. So we shopped around and bought a newer model from an El Cajon RV dealer, trading in the older one. When she moved in, Juanita revealed little of what she thought of the accommodations. Under her jolly exterior, it turned out, there cowered someone childlike in her fear. Whatever Juanita was afraid of seemed to dull her wits, make her stupid, in ways that drove us crazy. (Among other things, she’d straighten a room by stuffing all the clutter willy-nilly into the nearest closet or cupboard.) We were searching for an excuse to fire her, when Celia let it be known that she was interested in coming back to work for us. Even with a baby, she’d be better than Juanita, we had no doubt.
From the spring of 1991 until the fall of 1992, Celia brought Enrique to work with her every weekday. She and Carlos found an apartment three blocks from us, and Celia would walk over between 7:30 and 8:00 in the morning and work until between 4:30 and 5:00 that afternoon. She’d long ago stopped working Saturdays, except to babysit a few times a month on Saturday evenings. Interspersing her days with us was the time that she spent caring for Enrique: breast-feeding him, changing his diapers, settling him down for naps, consoling him. It made for a busy, though hardly an arduous, day.
But Celia wasn’t entirely happy. I knew there were tensions between her and Carlos, Fights over money and sex and more, no single issue explosive enough to shatter the marriage, but simmering resentments. She was sensitive, too, over the status of Enrique in our house. As time passed, and he got old enough to pick Fights and throw tantrums and break things (no more so than any child), she would harshly berate him or slap him as I had never once seen her do to my children.
This bothered me. And it wasn’t the only criticism I could have made of her by that seventh year together. Long before then, she had learned how easy it is to make me feel guilty, and this she did routinely (say, when I asked her to babysit at night or when, on the rarest of occasions, I arrived home a few minutes late). As her child-tending duties had expanded, her housekeeping had grown sketchier. Yet whenever I asked her to do some long-ignored task, I felt an intentional chill. Once in a while, some minor incident would reduce her to the toddlers’ level, where she became as jealous and touchy as they were.
Even listing these things makes them seem important. But they weren’t. I think they were the sorts of minor irritants spawned in any family. I must have done things that annoyed her too. The crucial thing for Jack and me — the fundamental thing—was that we could trust Celia absolutely. She was honest and smart. She had a great sense of humor. And she could take care of our children and run our house almost as competently as we could.
I can’t say that we were thrilled when, in August of 1992, she brought from Mexico two of her other children. But we certainly weren’t unprepared for it. Celia had gone home during the summer (during which time we got a temporary replacement), then had returned with her 12-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter; her youngest boy had refused to leave his grandparents alone. Throughout late August and early September, Celia had struggled with challenges that would have daunted many a college graduate: getting the daughter enrolled in University High School, the son in middle school. The stresses in her home life built too, as Carlos expressed a fast-mounting resentment of his stepchildren. He started accusing Celia of having affairs. She was still recovering from a diagnosis of cervical cancer that she’d been given in the spring of 1992. A mutual friend and I had found a doctor willing to treat her for free, and she’d undergone surgery, successfully. But there were follow-up checkups.
And bills from the hospital continued to roll in.
Despite all these things, I would have told anyone that things were under control as we headed Into the final preparations for Halloween 1992. Jason was going to be Robin Hood, my daughter a ghost, Enrique a pumpkin. Then I discovered that Celia was stealing money out of my wallet.
I learned this in three stages. The first came a few days after I had borrowed $10 from my husband, money that I thought I might need in the course of doing some errands. I hadn’t needed it, after all, but several days passed before I remembered to pay Jack back. And the $10 bill wasn’t there. I asked Jack if he had reclaimed it, but he said no. So I concluded that I had to be forgetting some thoughtless expenditure, somewhere.
I gave it no more attention. A week or two passed, and I found myself having to pay a $2.50 fee at my daughter’s nursery school. My wallet contained two $20 bills, but rather than ask for change, I wrote a check for the amount. That stuck in my mind. A few days later, I went to pay for something and noticed that I had only one of the twenties. I hadn’t bought anything in the interim. This time I said something to Jack.
I think we both felt frightened — in the muted way that you do when you can’t even face the possibility that something fearful is happening. Celia couldn’t have taken the money. We knew that. But what could have happened to it? Suddenly, we weren’t completely sure.
“One thing I do know,” Jack said, “is that we can’t say anything unless we’re positive.” We resolved to make an effort to keep track of every dollar in our pockets. Again days passed — superficially normal days. But an unaccustomed wariness had infected Jack and me. We felt like people who’ve become aware that — just possibly — a small wild rodent might be concealing itself within our house.
About a week after Jack’s and my whispered conference, I finished my work early and prepared to go out for a run. It was about 4:00 p.m. Celia was watching cartoons with the children in the living room. My wallet lay on top of a heap of papers in my bedroom. I checked the contents just before heading out the door: $68 and some change. I ran for maybe 40 minutes, then entered the house and told Celia she should feel free to leave whenever she wanted. Back in my bedroom, I checked the wallet again, by now almost a reflex gesture. It contained $43.
Never have I felt more like a cartoon character. My eyes seemed literally to bulge out of their sockets, recoil, then bulge again. Numbness gripped me as I stumbled to Jack, to tell him what I’d learned. We sat there staring at each other, and one thought played over and over in my mind: she’s destroyed her life.
Does that sound ridiculously melodramatic? Do Jack and I appear impossibly puritanical? Or tight-fisted? But this had nothing to do with money. If some stranger had come into my home and stolen money, I’d feel annoyed. But I wouldn’t feel betrayed. I wouldn’t feel suddenly incapable of trusting what I had counted on like a fact of nature, like the rising of the sun.
To spare the children, we didn’t confront Celia until the end of the next day. As she was walking out the door, I asked if she could come back that evening to talk to us. Her hackles rose. What was wrong? she badgered me. I was scaring her. What did we need to talk about? Finally I blurted out that I knew she had been taking money from my purse. Her face changed from cafe au lait to something colder, milkier. “NO!” she gasped. “You would think that of me?!”
“You must think that I’m really, really stupid,” I said.
“No. I know you’re not stupid,” she answered slowly, sadly.
She would be back, she promised, then she shuffled off.
She returned right on time, a dead-eyed, slow-moving shadow of herself. We sat on the couch. She sank down to the floor and kept her arms pressed very closely to her body, as though she were freezing. Woodenly, she told us that she didn’t know why she’d taken the money. In doing so, she had lost her very best friends, she added, and for this she was very, very sorry.
“We know you’ve been under a lot of financial pressure,” Jack offered. We had by then raised her salary to $700 a month, but Jack noted, “With your children here from Mexico, you’ve had a lot of extra expenses....”
But that wasn’t it, she interrupted him, with a puzzled frown. She and Carlos had had enough money; they even managed to save a little.
Why, then? She didn't know, she told us bleakly. “Only...it seemed...so easy.” She described to us how shamed, how soiled, she’d felt after she’d done it the first time. She’d thought of returning the money, of confessing what had happened. But she said nothing, and she did it again, and again.
None of us announced what we all knew: that she couldn’t continue working for us. Jack did say she could stay on while she looked for another job. But she shrank from his words. “I would be too uncomfortable,” she mumbled. Before she walked out. Jack paid her what we owed her, while she in turn stuffed something into his hand, about $60. He stuttered that it was probably more than she had taken. Her face was closed, stricken, as she left.
She seemed to vanish. We heard nothing from her, saw no sign of her or Carlos or Enrique or the other two kids, though they lived just three blocks away. At the same time, Celia’s presence haunted me. I would wake in the middle of the night, heart pounding, rigid with tension, replaying the final scene with her. For a few days, I abandoned my professional work and did Celia’s job: playing with my daughter (now three and a half); preparing after-school snacks for Jason; folding clothing still warm from the dryer, scrubbing the kitchen floor. I like these tasks and do them well; I wasn’t unhappy giving myself over to them. But I can’t do them and simultaneously work at my desk or talk to business associates on the telephone, so I soon found a replacement for Celia, the same woman who had filled in for her the previous summer. We knew her to be smart, reliable, and a legal U.S. resident. Even after I hired her, however, I found myself drifting away from my desk during the day, to vacuum the floor or dust bookshelves — crude attempts to fix the deeper disarray in our house. I couldn’t stop telling various relatives and friends about what had happened. It was in this obsessive recounting that I finally began to feel calmer.
One day a few weeks after Celia departed, while out running, I was struck by how good it felt not to have to worry about her life. There had been so many concerns: her older children’s struggles with school, her fights with Carlos, her hospital bills, whether she should find a bigger apartment. If they weren’t my problems, they had been close cousins. Now, suddenly, I didn’t even know where Celia was. I didn’t have to know.
Eventually, I got word that she had taken all the children back to Mexico, and then, a few months later, that she had returned to San Diego again. This latter tidbit I heard from a friend of mine for whom Celia had worked the previous summer (while we were on vacation). This friend had liked Celia enormously and had been stunned when I’d told her about Celia’s thefts and abrupt departure. When Celia called her in January of last year, looking for work, my friend had just lost her babysitter and was desperate for a reliable replacement. She asked me what I thought. This is how I discovered that I still thought Celia was a conscientious and responsible person who might never steal again.
My friend hired Celia and was happy with her, and news about Celia’s life came to me periodically. I didn’t actually see Celia again, however, until one day last summer at our local grocery store. I had dreaded such a chance meeting, but she and I found ourselves grinning at the sight of one another. Our conversation was brief, a little nervous, but yearning. A few months later, when she quit working for my friend to go home to be with her dying father, I sent a sympathy card to her home in Mexico. But I heard nothing again, until she called one day this past January.
She asked about the children, about Jack and me, about my mother. She told me that there are days when she can hear the barking of our dog, whom she misses along with the rest of us. We talked for maybe half an hour, and I was struck by how thoroughly all my hurt feelings had drained away; by how completely my anger had disappeared.
I now think I understand what happened. I think all the stress she was enduring made her crack — perhaps along the line of some fault buried within her character, but understandably, forgivably. I think she also felt trapped by her life in America in a way she’d never experienced before bringing her older children here. By doing something that we couldn’t tolerate, but had to discover, she forced her life to change.
I still don’t see Celia around my neighborhood, but I see others who remind me of her: young, brown-skinned women pushing towheaded babies in their strollers. I look at them sometimes and wonder how entangled they’ve become with their — what shall I call them? Families? American patrons? “Employers” is inadequate. In these girls, I also see Celia as she was nine years ago, and I feel not the slightest regret for welcoming her into my life. She loved my children and my husband and me, and we all loved her back. We worked together well, and we laughed a lot.
I do wonder if Celia is better off for having come up here to work for us. The equations — what she gained and what she lost — are so complex. Only she could possibly calculate some of the values involved. Maybe she’ll be working it out for the rest of her life. I hope I continue to hear from her.