Today is an anniversary of sorts. It is my first ride on a Greyhound bus since I first rode one in nineteen sixty four on my way to reunite with my parents after spending nearly three years by myself in this country. That bus ride from Santa Rosa, California to Miami, Florida, was close to five days long. I was full of the love and memories of my new home in California, of my new American life.
I think when people imagine the reunions of the Pedro Pan children and their parents, they have a mental picture of children running into their parents’ arms, a sense of the joy felt by each family member finally coming together after a long absence. And perhaps that was the case for many Pedro Pan children; but not for all.
I have been told about my carefree childhood days, although when you are an only child among many adults I am not so sure days are really care free. People didn’t sing and laugh much in my family, They had intellectual discussions, listened to classical music, and bore the scars of their lives close to the surface. I was aware of their psychological pain from the time I was a small child, although at the time I couldn’t name it. It was the background music of my growing up years, that thankfully were also spent in wonderful schools with competent and loving teachers and exceptional friends, many of whom grace my life to this day.
By the time I was twelve when Fidel arrived in Havana triumphantly claiming the success of his revolution, my childhood was a thing of the past. A man, tortured by Batista’s henchmen and rescued somehow by my father and his friends, had died in my bed. I stayed at my grandmother’s house during the process, but not before being greeted by the sight of a bloated and stinking almost -corpse appearing to float on my frilly white delicately embroidered bedspread on a Tuesday afternoon when I arrived home from school a few years earlier. A bomb had exploded underneath my bedroom window shortly after that. I slept through the blast, but woke up to find my parents standing by my bed in full alert to make sure when I woke I did not move a muscle until they determined if any shards of the glass from my window had escaped their search. The whispers of revolution and later counter revolution, had lulled me to sleep for years, as had at times the endless arguments between my parents, interesting but complex and difficult people for a child to decipher.
I approached my Peter Pan exile with the sense of adventure and thoughts of Huck Finn, the sensitivity and innocence of Ann Frank, and the faith of Saint Francis of Assissi.
It took a while to adjust to what I refer to as the land of the polka dot bikini. The land where children appeared never to have taken a geography lesson or heard of pain. There were no young men talking about politics, these young men were all about their cars and motorcycles, all about fun. The girls were all about boys. Leave it to Beaver gave me a picture of family life totally foreign to my psyche, and to my heart.
But I adjusted. A short time later I was on Venetian Island with my friend Ani, listening to the top forty on my transistor radio, and dancing on Miami Beach. I was flirting with a boy named Nelson and anticipating episodes of Route 66. Suddenly free, superficiality came easy, along with an absolute thirst for a new “normal”.
Boarding school was a God send. I was welcome and loved by my roommates and friends, and the Thomas, Klein, Violetti and Peters families gave me a glimpse of a family life I took to like a duck to water. Despite the occasional: “Cuba? Do your people live in trees?” I was overwhelmed by the generosity and kindness of the girls who were now my new family, and the nuns who cared for us so diligently. It was in boarding school, singing with The Flat Four, earning a place in the National Honor Society, sharing family life on my weekends out of school with Rex and Anna Mae Thomas and my newfound “sister” Linda, that I learned to laugh more often, to take life more lightly, and to cherish the feeling of being held dear. Little by little, the serious burdened girl gave way to the almost care free American teenager.
Of course I thought of my family, but back then there was no internet, only snail mail, and thinking of my father in a mined prison that could blow up at any moment, of my mother prostrated with grief in a bed surrounded by holy cards, my grandmother without my grandfather at her side, well, it all seemed so terribly far away. The months turned into years, and looking back at a world that was out of my reach forever filled me with pain. So I took refuge in the words of Simon and Garfunkel’s song: “And a rock feels no pain, and and island never cries.” and thought I insulated myself pretty well.
A telegram had foreshadowed my exile, and now a telegram arrived again. It was short. “Your father and I have arrived in Miami. You are coming home.”
My father was serving a twenty year sentence in prison. How did he and my mother arrive in Miami? What home was I going to? I was home! Oh my God! The tears began to flow as Mamma and Pappa T looked on, thinking they were tears of joy. They rejoiced for me while the first notes of the dreaded background music began to play in my heart.
As soon as the school year was over, I boarded a Greyhound bus much like the one I sit in today, a million miles away in time and place from the telegram day.
I remember the dread and anticipation, the cute soldier that sat next to me but not his name. Days of waiting for the bus doors to open at the final destination, of wondering what I would find. Who I would find. Who I would have to become to disguise my foray into American teenagehood.
Finally, there I was. There they were. I picked up my small suitcase from the overhead compartment and walked towards the steps, descended onto the pavement, looked for familiar faces, and found them. But they did not immediately find me. Not until I said, “Mami, it’s me”.
I got to go back to Santa Rosa, CA for another year, a year I spent in full appreciation of every moment I spent in the company of those I came to love so much. Then I returned to my parents, their child, now almost a woman, all of us so changed by time and experiences none of us had shared. My father had his memories of prison. He kept them to himself for the most part. He had developed an addiction to ice cream in exile after yearning for it daily in his cell. My mother was sadder, almost bitter. Who knows what her life was like alone with a family that never quite welcomed her wholeheartedly. And I had my own memories to cherish that didn’t include them. Casualties of revolutions, of exile, we were like altered pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that could never quite fit together again.
I have spoken with other Pedro Pan children ridden with undeserved guilt, feeling like they betrayed their parents in some way. But it wasn’t betrayal, it was adaptation. It was what species have been doing for eons. Survival.
I am an hour away from Portland now. I spent the weekend with my friends in Jacksonville, Oregon, who welcomed me with love into their midst. I took a Healing Touch class for a day, got to hear my precious friend Cantrell Maryott Driver and her friend Jacqueline_Ambrose sing at an almost private concert, got to embrace some of my Chartres sisters one more time. I met new friends. I am so blessed! This bus is taking me to family and to love. I am going home. The people on the bus don’t look much different. There is even a young soldier among us. I can’t tell if he’s cute because all I can see is his youth. He looks like a boy playing dress up traveling to his own unknown destiny along with all the people on this bus that time seems not to have touched.