by E. J Brunton, originally published in the Napanee Guide
“Do you think you could take more than two little girls?” Sister Maria Jose asked hopefully.
I looked at Julio and he shrugged, “I don’t see why not."
“Wonderful!” cried the nun and she flew out of the cold drafty room of the Orphanage before we could change our minds.
That was Christmas Eve, 1992 in Cuenca, Ecuador. But the story began a month earlier when I was seized by an urge to make sock dolls. After I had about thirty done I wondered what to do with them. I called my sister-in-law and asked her advice.
“Why don’t you give them to an orphanage?” was her practical reply.
So that was how it started. I called the Orphanage and offered the dolls. The nun said they would be greatly appreciated but could I bring them a few days before Christmas as most of the little girls were going home for the holidays?
“They go home for the holidays? I thought they were orphans,” I exclaimed.
The Sister continued by way of explanation, “Yes, their families are poor and so they give them to us to feed and clothe and educate until they are 12. Of course there are some that don’t have families and they will be staying here. You couldn’t take a couple of them for Christmas could you?”
I was staggered at the rapidity of what was happening here. How had a few innocent sock dolls suddenly morphed into real little dolls coming to spend the holidays with us?
At the agreed upon time we went to the orphanage to leave the dolls and to meet the little girls who would come home with us on Christmas Eve.
All of these Spanish Colonial buildings began to blur into one after awhile. They sullenly sat at the very edge of the narrow sidewalks, bordering the marble-cobbled streets.
The concierge let us in and showed us to a drafty room overlooking the pleasant courtyard. There were roses and trees and benches. Nestled carelessly amongst the flowers were ancient pre Colombian pots.
We sat for a few minutes as a cool breeze blew stiffly in the open windows chilling us to the bone. The room was dimly lit with a single naked bulb suspended from the 18 foot ceiling.
Soon Sister Maria Jose arrived. She was starched and sharply defined but she had a mischievous look that I liked immediately. She greeted us briskly and then rushed off to gather the children.
After meeting the children we went shopping in the open air markets for warm sweaters, underpants, socks, candy and toys. My generous neighbours and my sister-in-law donated their children’s outgrown clothes for the rest of the kids at the orphanage.
On Christmas Eve afternoon we returned to the orphanage to pick up our two little charges. I had been thinking how strange it was that no forms had been filled out and the nun had not even asked our names, where we lived, what we did, or come to inspect where the little girls would be staying.
How different it was from our paranoid, bubble-wrapped society and how dangerous it could have been. Never were we asked any of these questions in the months that ensued. It is easy to see why Latin America is one of the favorite spots to pick up street children for use and abuse in various horrible enterprises such as snuff films, in the organ trade, or smuggling drugs in their lifeless bodies.
Sister Maria Jose asked apologetically, “Do you think you could take more than two little girls?”
Before we had time to ask how many, she was gone and back in a flash with 6 little girls ranging in age from 4 years to 12 years old. They were freshly scrubbed and ready to go. Well, it would be crowded in our two guest beds but how could you choose which ones were to stay at the orphanage?
We took the girls out to the house that we were building in the country on a 5 acre lot that ran down to the river. The children gamboled about, climbing trees, picking avocados, oranges, lemons and capuli and teasing the dogs while we settled up the business of the Christmas baskets for the workers.
We had about six full-time men building the house and two ladies who were clearing the fields with hoes and old-fashioned sickles with cow-horn handles. The custom was to prepare a basket with cooking oil, sugar, rice, a live chicken, salt, a can or two of tuna, some dry noodles, a bottle of cane liquor and whatever else you could fit in.
Once the baskets were handed out, a drink shared and Christmas wishes exchanged. We prepared to leave. One of the ladies who had been clearing the field came rushing up. “No basket for us Don Julio? Not even a fruit bread? Since the ladies had only been working there for a couple of days we had forgotten about them.
We felt terrible so Julio said,” Jump on. I’ll give you Christmas dinner.” One of the ladies protested that she couldn’t go so Julio gave her some money. The other lady, Luisa, begged us to wait a moment while she ran home to clean up.
After about 15 minutes she returned. Following behind her were 6 small children ranging in age from a few months to 15 years old. The turkey we were having roasted at one of the local bakeries seemed to shrink in my mind. Could we possibly feed all these people? I should have asked Sister Maria Jose about how you did the loaves and fishes thing.
Julio was his usual calm self while I tried to squelch my mounting hysteria. Once home he picked up the phone to call our friend, the resourceful Manuel. Manuel loved a challenge and readily agreed to get some more food somewhere and I set about to prepare the vegetables that would go along with the turkey which Julio had gone to retrieve. My kitchen was thronged with excited children and Luisa was peeling potatoes in quantity.
I retired to a quiet corner with my own personal recipe for hysteria - a tumbler of neat rum . I counted our guests as I wondered how in the world we could come up with gifts not only for the orphans but also for the unexpected multitude. There would now be 16 people at the table or perched on the sofas and chairs. Suddenly I thought of the used clothing in my office. I wrapped up some of it for the unexpected orphans and gave the rest of it to Luisa.
Pandemonium was in full swing when Julio and Manuel arrived. Julio’s natural leadership skills got everyone organized with various tasks. The kids would set the table, Manuel would carve the turkey, I would just continue to drink. “Relax, you don’t have to do a thing,” he said refilling my glass.
Somehow dinner was served and everyone had their fill. It wasn’t loaves and fishes but it filled the bill.