“Take them. Take them. Otherwise the little plants will die.” Mimi presses a flat of 16 tomato seedlings into my arms and I say sure. Sure. I thrust the flat onto the deep dashboard of the minivan, watching a handful of black ants stream from the undersides and into the creases. The rest of my car is full: a bookshelf. Two boxes of paper and office supplies, fancy scissors and markers and crayons. In the passenger seat, three rosemary bushes, sage, one fragrant thyme, a start of spearmint.
“I grew the tomato plants from seed. They are small.” Yes, only as tall as my thumb, and it’s nearly July, and no tomatoes will ever grace these poor foundlings. Days ago, Jim wrapped pallets of their belongings for the container ship, and I get the feeling they’ve not slept since then.
I say no to a luxury air mattress with only one leak which could easily be repaired (I have one of those already, in exactly the same condition.) I say no to a document scanner that is no better than the one I own already. I apologize that I can’t take another load to Goodwill, can’t find a home for a perfectly-good working sewing machine, can’t take on multiple steps to get good stuff into the hands of people who might need good stuff.
They will leave for the airport in ninety minutes, and they need showers. They refuse cold beer—they are that serious.
What I came for is the outdoor fireplace, now filled with ash—they’ve been burning papers they won’t need, she says, night by night, while deciding what things they will need for the rest of their lives in Costa Rica. Shedding America, layer by layer.
She panics when I look at the huge metal bowl of ash. “But we have no place to put the ash!” I ask if I can’t simply dump the ash in the woods next door, and she says no, something about the landlady. I can tell that her English is tired by the way she searches for words, places her hands on both sides of her head. Jim comes out of the door and panics, oh my gosh we didn’t even empty the ash! I bring my own hands down, an epiclesis, bringing down the Holy Spirit to soothe, to calm. I tell them I can find a bag, I can clean it, I don’t mind at all. I brought gloves, I say. “We use a, a thing to scoop out the ash…” I find the large metal spoon next to the fireplace and determine the direction of the wind, so I can get to work. I line a box with a grocery bag, and shovel ash with the spoon.
After I nestle the scrolled metal base, the bowl of the fireplace, and the screen cover into the backseat, Mimi asks if I can help her empty the frig. Thank goodness I brought empty boxes. After asking, “do you want these? Can your family use these?” I say, give me everything. Mimi shrugs and says, “well, we all need containers, right? If you don’t need the food, you can just use the containers, then I don’t have to think anymore.” I nod: that’s the best way. Let me take it all, take all the worry, all the decisions I can bear away in a few boxes. My effort is not much, not as much as they need. They tell me someone is coming to pick up the last loads, later.
We talk a little—not much, not sentimental. A month ago, my daughter insisted before her eighth grade graduation: NO TEARS. And it took effort, but I did what she wanted. Good training for today. My friends—soon to be my Costa Rican friends—are too tired for weeping, and I must let them go with a simple hug, sweaty, not too close, after I cram the box of food into the last inches of space in my van.
“You will remember us in fire,” she nods at the fireplace in the backseat of my van. “I like that. You will remember us in salads and soups. I am glad your children will remember us everywhere.”
I am tired and spent, myself, but I think to lean out the driver’s side window, for one last word. “You have been a blessing, from the first time I met you until now.” A last wish for safe travels, and I am on my way, holding a flat of tomato seedlings against the dashboard with one hand and driving toward remembrance with the other.