Journey’s End
by Myrna Beth Lambert


I grew up in Southern Florida, not the Florida that evokes images of magnificent hotels and white sandy beaches, but the section of Florida comprised of impoverished families and ramshackle homes.

My community in Palmetto Beach was called Sun Valley Estates. This name brings to mind large homes and a grand style of living in the Sunshine State of Florida. The reality was a few acres of land housing about twenty little trailer homes with a few narrow dirt roads weaving in and out of the matchbox tracts. These homes were faded white aluminum dwellings with a dull blue trim across their roofs.

In front of each of the trailers stood an inexpensive metal or plastic patio chair and an occasional trinket such as a wind chime, a flowerpot or a plastic heron placed on the grass next to the owner’s front door. These cheap little accessories distinguished one home from another.

Often in the back of a trailer a clothesline filled with the day’s wash could be seen fluttering in the breeze or baking in the hot sun.

There was very little privacy in this small community because the trailers were in close proximity to each other. Family feuds could be heard throughout the trailer park.

Yet this close knit group of people was very private and their secrets remained within the tight little compound.

I grew up in this little world, the only child amidst retired and unemployed elderly people.

My little trailer consisted of three rooms, a tiny kitchen nook, a small sitting room with a hide-a- bed sofa and a little bathroom that had a miniscule shower stall, small sink and toilet. This was home and here begins my story.

My mother scraped and saved working odd jobs, waitressing, doing domestic work and bartending at night until she had enough money to buy her little piece of the pie (as she used to say), and this little trailer was it.

I never knew my father. I don’t think Mama, as I called my mother, knew him well either. She said they were two ships, each on a different course.

Mama’s parents had passed away soon after I was born and there wasn’t any other family. She and I were it.

I was nine years old when we moved to Sun Valley Estates, small for my age, with wavy brown hair and blue eyes that missed nothing.

We arrived with two small battered suitcases and a large black trash bag filled with odds and ends such as a few pots and dishes, a few towels and a down blanket. The blanket was Mama’s prize possession. At one time it was a bright yellow. Now it was faded and tattered, but it still kept us warm on cool nights.

Mama was only home a short while every day, so I spent my time roaming around the compound, visiting the neighbors. Soon I became the adopted granddaughter of my elderly friends.

Mama usually returned home around five o’clock each day. She hurriedly made a quick dinner, which consisted of a can of spaghetti and a slice of bread or canned soup and a peanut butter sandwich. Then she opened the sofa, gave me a quick peck on the cheek and was out the door to work the night shift.

She drove to and from her various jobs in an old Ford pick-up truck which was gray and rusted. Mama’s friend Cody, who was a mechanic, kept the old truck finely tuned for her.

The neighborhood men said that Mama was a good-looking woman. They often stared when she walked past. She was small and trim. Her tight mini skirts and skimpy shirts hugged her small breasts and showed off her figure, and the spiked heels she wore added inches to her height.

We spent very little time together, for she came home late at night. She would quietly creep into bed and curl up next to me and we would both sleep soundly under the soft down comforter.

During the day I sometimes went to school; that is, when the bus remembered to stop for me. Since I was the only child at the bus stop in front of the community gate, the bus often just rode by, forgetting a child lived there.

I was registered at the local school, but on days I didn’t appear nobody seemed to miss me, because no inquiries were made. But I received an extraordinary education just hanging around the trailer camp.

Uncle Yuri (who really wasn’t my uncle, but insisted I call him that) was a nice old man. He sat outside on a white plastic chair most of the day in his striped shorts and sleeveless tee shirt reading his favorite Russian authors, Tolstoy and Chekhov.

“Their stories remind me of my childhood home,” he said.

Sometimes he would read a particular passage to me, followed by an explanation. Imagine explaining Tolstoy to a nine-year-old child. Then, he would ask me questions. If my answers were to his liking he would give me a hug and a licorice stick.

After I finished Tolstoy, I would stop at Mrs. Sweeny’s trailer. She was a kind old woman who spoke with an Irish accent and loved to talk about her childhood home in Ireland. In the center of her sitting room stood a huge world globe. During each visit she would carry a tray of homemade cookies and lemonade into the room and we would study the globe looking for her little town in Ireland as she recounted tales of her youth. She came to Florida as a married woman with her now departed husband Brock. She had lived in her trailer for many years, too many to remember she said. After she finished her story of Ireland, she would go into a trance and forget I was there, so I would quietly leave and head down the dirt road to the next trailer.

Juan and Marina lived next door to Mrs. Sweeny and they fought a lot. Marina was always yelling at Juan in Spanish.

“Hola mi amiga, estoy listo,” (Hello my friend, I am ready) he would say as I approached his home.

He would then hand me a little shovel and together we would plant peonies, English lavender and a variety of seeds known to Juan.

Juan and Marina had the prettiest front garden in the tract. He loved his flowers and he would often talk to them. He said at least flowers couldn't talk back. As we worked together Juan spoke to me in Spanish. He would then explain each word in English and insist I repeat it in his native tongue.

Before long I had graduated to whole simple sentences and after a time I could converse fluently in Spanish with Juan and Marina.

After I helped tend Juan and Marina’s garden, I hastened to my favorite trailer.
This was Mrs. Orenstein’s spotlessly clean home which held the sweetest aromas. Mrs. Orenstein was a chubby woman who wore a white apron and a big smile. She always greeted me with a warm hug and an invitation to stay for lunch. Mrs. Orenstein set a beautiful table using her fine china and white linen tablecloth.

She said, “It is very important to set a proper table when entertaining guests .The right utensil must be used for each course.”

We would put our napkins in our lap and then proceed to take helpings of fish or meatballs with spoonfuls of steaming rice. This was a daily fare.

Mrs. Orenstein said I was the grandchild she never had and on occasion she would give me a present. Once she gave me a new skirt and jeans jacket and another time she gave me a bracelet with little charms hanging from it. The charms were symbols of her Jewish religion and she explained each one to me with so much joy in her voice I thought she would burst out singing. She would always hug me as I was leaving. Then she would say, “until tomorrow shana madel,” which means pretty girl in Yiddish.

My last stop before I headed home was usually the Ferranti house. The Ferrantis were a kind and gentle couple. Mrs. Ferranti was a tiny lady who always wore her hair in a bun and Mr. Ferranti was a big man. He had a fat belly that hung outside his pants and when he laughed it rolled like the waves lapping and receding from the shoreline. They had tea and biscotti outside their trailer at 3 o’clock every afternoon and always set a place at their little table for me.

On the side of Mr. Ferranti’s trailer was a basketball hoop. Here he taught me how to play basketball. Mr. Ferranti said the hoop was put there for his little boy, but one day his son was all grown up and went north. I promised him I would always play with him and that made him smile. One day he said, “Never make a promise you may not be able to keep. Children grow up and they have to make lives for themselves. You won’t always live here.” At the time that seemed hard to believe.

One day I arrived home a few minutes before 5 o’clock to meet my mother, but she didn’t come home for dinner, which was most unusual. She didn’t come home the next morning either. I became very worried and ran to Mrs. Orenstein’s house. She called a meeting of the neighbors and they said they would make some inquiries.
That night, I stayed at Mrs. Orenstein’s after making her promise to leave a message for Mama.

Several weeks went by without a note from my mother. I was very worried, but the neighbors reassured me that she was fine and would return soon.

One day two women from a place called DCFS visited the neighbors. They said there was a report of a little girl living alone at the trailer park. My friends professed innocence and the investigators left.

Mrs. Orenstein said that, if these people appeared again, I was to hide or I would be taken away to an orphanage. I became frightened and very leery of strangers.
I was now an illegal ward of Sun Valley Estates. Each of my neighbors became my unofficial guardian and they each home-schooled me in the subject they knew best. I learned about great books from Uncle Yuri and the Spanish language from Juan and Marina. Mrs. Sweeney taught me geography and Mrs. Orenstein taught me math and proper etiquette.

About two months after Mama vanished, Mrs. Orenstein received a letter from her. She said she had gone to Chicago to visit a sick friend and asked if Mrs. Orenstein would look after me until she returned. Enclosed was a twenty dollar bill.

I visited my house each day, but slept at Mrs. Orenstein’s each night, and I spent my days the same as before my mother disappeared. Sometimes, Mrs. Sweeny took me shopping and the Ferantinis took me to a carnival. I had stopped attending school because I wasn't supposed to exist in Reed County anymore. My elderly friends worried that I wasn't getting a proper education and tutored me as often as they could.

I missed my mother, but she had spent so little time with me that I wasn’t sure exactly what I missed. The nights were the hardest. I would wrap myself in her down comforter and pretend she was sleeping next to me.

The neighbors in my community had now become my family and they tried their best to keep me happy.

Eventually Mama sent a few letters to me, in care of Mrs. Orenstein. She said to stay with the neighbors and not to worry for she would soon return. Her letters to Mrs. Orenstein always had a crisp twenty-dollar bill attached to them. None of the letters had a return address. We knew they came from Chicago because of the postmark, but we had no idea why she was in Chicago. To my knowledge she had no friends there. We suspected she had gone with her friend Cody because he disappeared about the same time as Mama.

Weeks turned into months and months into years and Mama never returned.
When I was thirteen, my family decided that I should attend high school. Mrs. Orenstein enrolled me as a relative who had come to live with her. While the school awaited transcripts (which didn't exist) they gave me tests for placement. My educators had done a fine job and I scored very high on the placement tests.
I did very well in school and four years went by swiftly. I made no friends at school because I was afraid they would discover that I was living alone without proper adult supervision, but I did get a job at the local supermarket.

Soon I graduated with honors. I won a scholarship to Florida State and with my few belongings and help from Mrs. Orenstein I moved out of the trailer park to the university. The family was so proud of me. It was as though my degree belonged to all of them.

My mother continued to send letters to Mrs. Orenstein every other month and eventually gave her a box number where she could be reached. She seldom wrote to me.

Last week I graduated from Florida University with a degree in journalism and
the promise of a job with the Miami Scope Newspaper.

Of course Mama didn't come back for this event, but she did send a gift. Mama signed over the deed to the trailer to me. This was the only present I ever remember receiving from her.

Mrs. Orenstein, who has been like a mother to me, helped me sell the trailer. The first thing I shall do with the money from the sale is to purchase a TV for her. She will miss me and I am hoping the TV will occupy her time while I am away. I will also repay the money she laid out for my clothes and books for college. She had saved those twenty dollar bills which were supposed to help feed and clothe me. Mrs. Orenstein had kept them in a shoe box for my college education.

I will use some of the money to rent an apartment near the newspaper and, following Mrs. Orenstein’s advice, I will place some of the money in a savings account for a rainy day. I will also mail a portion of the proceeds to my mother. I still have not sorted out my feelings for her. They range from anger to indifference.

I am sure one day we will meet again and have a long talk, for I still cannot imagine why a mother would abandon her child to a bunch of strangers and never look back.

Before I go to Miami, I will attend a graduation party in my honor hosted by my family. I owe them so much, my well being, my education, and my survival. Mr. Ferranti (who passed away two years ago) was right. One day children do grow up and move away, but that doesn’t mean they have to sever all ties with the people they love. I shall never abandon my loved ones. For as the Sun Valley Estates of Palmetto Beach was my home, so were these people my family. As one journey comes to an end another journey begins.



 

Myrna Beth Lambert, award winning writer, is the mother of three grown daughters and nine grandchildren. She has been married to her husband, Stan, for forty years. Myrna writes poetry and short stories.

Her writing has received many awards including the Tom Howard Short Story Contest, Voices Net Poetry Contest and Spiderthief Publishing contest. She divides her time between homes in Chicago and Florida.

Recent Publications: “The Dieter’s Lament” (Voicenets award 2007); “The Storyteller” (Spiderthief Publishing 2006); “A Christmas Tale” (Bread N Molasses e zine 2006); and “The Father Daughter Dance” (Chicken Soup for the Recovering Soul 2006).