The Toyotas, Nissans, Datsuns, and Mitsubishis buzz past the main terminal at the Guatemalan airport early Saturday morning. Along comes an out-of-place ‘89 Chevy van, the only vehicle with tail lights, with a muffler, and without dents.
Behind the wheel is an out-of-place woman who resembles a Midwestern farmwife on a parts run for her husband. We throw our luggage and ourselves into her van as a traffic cop toots his annoying whistle. She shouts out the window in Español, something to the effect: “I’m here for a reason, and I’ll move when I’m good and ready!”
Her name is Helen. She’s clearly out of place, yet right at home in Guatemala, a country she both loves and loathes.
She peels out of the airport and into the city, a demolition derby waiting to happen. She switches to English and gripes about the bumpy streets, all in a distinct Chicago accent finely honed by her south side Irish upbringing.
Helen, like the country she now calls home, is a living contradiction. She’s a tough old bird and she’s a spring chicken. She has nerves of steel and a heart of gold. She’s a shrewd capitalist and an idealistic humanitarian. She’s a loving mother and a drill sergeant. She’s a doctor, nurse, mother, lawyer, administrator, chauffeur, philanthropist, and philosopher.
Her kitchen table is an artist’s canvas exploding with Guatemala’s endless bounty. Fresh sweet corn, fresh tomatoes, fresh spinach, fresh green beans - colors and flavors blended together and served with true style. At Helen’s house, you eat with both elbows on the table - your fork is a shovel. It’s my kind of place. The dinner conversation centers around food, so much to sample, so little time. And leave room for Guatemala’s ice cream - it puts our frozen glop to shame. Ask for one scoop, you get two. Ask for two, you get four. Say “no thanks” and get some anyway.
Outside is a collage of comedy and tragedy. Guatemala is a land of plenty where many farmers have no food. It’s dirty and dingy, yet vibrant and colorful. Its lifestyle is lazy and carefree, yet it’s a never-ending chaotic rat race. Guatemala is mountains and lakes and natural beauty shrouded by smog belched from the tailpipes of crowded buses.
Helen stands in the middle of this paradox, each arm being pulled by either side.
Her mission, her cause, and yes, her business, is to provide opportunity where opportunity does not exist. Helen is a foster mother. She turns lives of despair into lives of hope. According to Helen, every baby is an adorable baby, a beautiful baby, a darling baby. And every one of them deserves a chance.
Helen, now 58, was born and raised in the Chicago area. She met her husband, a Guatemalan, when both were mutually employed by Lions International. They moved to his homeland some 34 years ago to take over his family’s soap factory. He died earlier this year. Helen has five living “natural” children, a sixth died at the age of 2. She has endured personal tragedy, business failures, cancer surgery, an earthquake, political turmoil, and a social system stuck in eternal gridlock.
Take the simple problem of litter. People litter because there are no trash barrels. There are no trash barrels because people steal them for water storage. The water is not potable for obvious reasons. Farmers who raise food have no money. They sell all their crops for meager sums, then have no food. Many are illiterate. Simple rules of nutrition, health, and responsibility are abstract.
“A great nation is an educated nation. We’re going nowhere.” she laments.
Helen drives through the city, dodging bicyclists, gaudy buses, and buzzing rattletraps. She’s always in a hurry, but she always has time to help a street corner beggar. Horns blast from behind as she fumbles for some change. “I try to be nice and they honk,” she mutters.
Her home is solitude for, at present, six orphan babies who await their adoptive parents. All wait for nothing more than a fair shake at the world we take for granted.
Helen’s babies are bathed, fed, amused, and loved on a regular schedule. In between, Helen wrestles with a bureaucratic system where a simple signature may take weeks to obtain. She keeps her frustrations to herself and strives to work within that inefficient system to create a better world. Over-anxious parents-to-be call her constantly. “Everything takes time. In Guatemala, you learn to wait.”
By Guatemalan standards, she is incredibly wealthy. “People don’t like the rich, but they don’t understand the amount of work it takes to be rich,” she says.
Helen’s riches cannot be measured in Guatemalan quetzals, but rather in deeds.
Over the past several years, many adoptive parents have anxiously waited for Helen’s “children” to come home. One came home to our house last week. Helen’s wish for him, like her others, is simple: “Eat nutritious food, learn to read, and become a decent citizen.”
For five memorable days, my elbows rested on Helen’s kitchen table. I may never wash them again.