Long-Distance Lessons in Friendship

It began with a Facebook “friend” request that popped up on my computer screen a year ago. No message or photo accompanied the boilerplate notice. But the name brought me to attention.

Nancy Garita Durán. Durán! It unfurled a wispy swirl of memories.

“Nancy Durán,” I responded. “Is it possible? Are you Fé and Miguel’s daughter? So many years it has been!”

Miguel Durán was the gregarious barber who befriended my spouse and me four decades ago in San Jose, Costa Rica. His wife, Fé, taught us to make traditional Costa Rican tamales for Christmas in1972.

“Soy la nieta de Don Miguel.” Came a prompt reply. Granddaughter, not daughter. Growing up, she had seen snapshots and listened to stories of Nortemericanos who had not been heard from in years. Last year, she turned to Facebook to seek a link that time had eroded. There, she found a network that spans years and geographic boundaries.

I knew it couldn’t end there. This propitious discovery seemed to merit more than a social network “friendship.” Nothing to do but confirm the connection with a reunion trip to Costa Rica.

An academic connection between the University of Kansas and the University of Costa Rica had provided the stimulus for our 1972 travels to that Central American country. We’d planned to stay just a few weeks.

I credit the fruit plate served on our first morning in San Jose with changing our destiny. Papaya, piña, mango, and melon—tropical flavors that fed an appetite for more. Before a month was out, I’d shopped my University of Oregon English degree to an American school where I landed a half-time position teaching grammar, Hamlet, and The Scarlet Letter to students bound for American colleges.

The Barber becomes the Teacher

We met Miguel Durán at a hotel swimming pool next door to the apartment we had rented. Miguel clipped hair in the hotel barbershop and hung out at the pool when business was slow. He wondered if we could teach him English. As it turned out, Miguel taught us much more than we taught him.

He appointed himself our official guide to the traditions of Costa Rica. He invited us to Sunday dinner at his simple home on the outskirts of Tres Ríos, about 15 kilometers from San Jose. He led us off to meet his neighbors.

Our stay in Costa Rica stretched into nine months before we turned north and returned to the United States.

It took a vacation trip, 18 years later, to renew the relationship. As we set off for Costa Rica in 1990, we wondered what we would find. Could we locate old friends after years of silence and separation? Would they still welcome us?

We arrived that year unaware that Miguel was preparing for amputation of one leg due to diabetes. When we reached his home, we stood with Fé at the end of his bed and watched tears pool in the dark holes of his eyes. We felt them form in the corners of our own

He looked smaller and older than we had imagined, lying there against the pillows of his bed. Time had paled his dark good looks. Pain aged his frame beyond his 58 years. We had come, he said, at a most fortuitous time. He needed friends around him now.

Back home in the United States, I waited for the news to reach us. Expected to hear of Miguel’s death. My letter drew no answer. I wondered if it had been delivered. Was grief or language a daunting hurdle to a written reply?

It seems strange now, how quickly we slipped into separate worlds again and settled as distant memories amid the distractions of busy lives. Odd, until one recalls that in 1990, the easy connectivity of email communication was still about five years in the future, according to Wikipedia. Facebook wasn’t yet a vision. Not until 2004 did that social network begin bridging geographic and language borders with virtual “friendships.”

Twenty-five years of silence stretched between our good-byes in 1990 and the Facebook message from Nancy that brought our memories up to date. Don Miguel had died, I learned, but not so soon as I had feared. He had thrived another 15 years, accompanied by Fé and by the families of their four children, all tucked into houses side-by-side along the same country road we walked in 1972.

Third Visit truly a Charm

Last month, we walked that road again, now a suburban street in a sprawling community sprung up on former coffee plantations outside of San Jose.

Doña Fé, 83 and widowed ten years now, welcomed us as grand matriarch of the family. Age has bestowed on her an honored position, freeing her of many domestic chores now handled by women of the next generation. She’s taking classes in computer science and photography.

Our embrace was joyous, as we launched a reunion lunch that stretched through much of the day. Members of this expanded family swirled around us, sitting down in shifts to share a meal prepared by daughters and daughters-in laws.

We cobbled together memories, shared old photographs, and made the acquaintance of offspring unborn at our last visit, relying on functional Spanish that surely tested the patience of our listeners.

Each of Miguel and Fé’s four children came to say hello. They’d ranged in age from 12 to 18 in 1972. They were, back then, shy around strangers who spoke in odd accents and broken phrases. They’d kept a cautious distance. This time, they proudly introduced their own children and grandchildren to us. A few we remembered from 26 years ago. Many more had arrived since that visit.

Among the youth who circled through the gathering was Carolina, 16-year-old daughter of Miguel and Fé’s youngest son.

“I named her for you,” proclaimed her proud father, who was himself 16 in 1972. I was stunned. Uncertain what to say to this man now beaming at me across the lunch table. The awe and honor in this revelation seemed to silence my light gaiety.

It was then I realized that we, Dean and I, had been inscribed into this family’s lore. We’d become a part of their history, and of the stories they tell, just as they have long been part of ours. On both sides, we’d preserved a bond of friendship stronger than the distances between us.

A day later, those stories accompanied us in a caravan of family members to a rural area we had visited together years ago. The day was rainy but we piled out of cars to hike trails of a verdant landscape now part of a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.

We strolled the grounds of what had once been a grand coffee production site, passing concrete tanks where coffee beans soaked before drying. We followed the path of the Río Gato that provided power for the operation.

As we advanced deeper into the overgrowth, I felt a hand on my elbow. Rafael had taken my arm protectively. We’d met just that morning--he, the spouse of a granddaughter who’d been a child on our 1990 visit. Now she and Rafa had two of their own, but for the moment his focus was on me.

At his touch, my instincts crouched in readiness.

“Oh, thanks,” I felt prepared to say. A quick shrug and apologetic smile. “I’m fine. I don’t need any help here.”

It would have been a natural response. I’ve been schooled in self-reliance by a mother who blanched at an offered hand and a culture that brooks no show of dependence.

But for two days, I’d watched my friend Fé accept the gracious attentions of her vast clan. She fixed her camera on the sights and sounds of the day, unfettered by the loving attentions of children and grandchildren who hovered around her at every turn.

She had taken over where Miguel left off, becoming for me another guide to traditions of Costa Rica. It was honor I saw in the gestures of her family, not pity for weakness or age. It was gracious acceptance I witnessed in her response.

The light grip I now felt now on my right arm was guiding me to a junction: I could choose to brush it aside in humiliation or accept it as an honor.

“Gracias, Rafa,” I said softly. And we walked on.

Gratitude cushioned my steps as I surrendered to the honor being shown me. Gracias to the family who embraced me as one of its own elders.

When our group began the descent back to cars and the picnic that lay ahead, we approached a staircase cut from rock. I paused and turned to Rafael.

“Why don’t you take the lead here,” I suggested. “I’ll put a hand on your shoulder as we go down.”

Carolyn Kortge of Eugene is a former Register-Guard editor and writer,

and author of The Spirited Walker. Contact her at spiritedwalker@gmail.com.


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