Have I ever told you about the time I rode home from Mexico on a giant bag of sugar? As with all things, I find that assuming a comfortable position and maintaining a positive attitude are helpful when facing life’s challenges.
It was the summer of ’73, Nixon was in his second term, Viet Nam was over, the World Trade Center had just opened, Skylab had been launched, Watergate was surfacing, and our family of four headed to Mexico. I was barely nine, and my sister, majoring in Spanish, had recently finished her freshman year of college. My grandparents had taken her along with two cousins to Mexico that spring, and my parents thought it would be fun to cross the border for our family vacation.
There are things about that trip, I’ll never forget. We headed south through Texas to Del Rio, and we crossed into Ciudad Acuña on Monday afternoon. In one of the shops, I saw an elderly lady in the back watching Spanish language television, and I was so fascinated. The next morning, I saw my first episode of I Love Lucy (the one where Lucy sneaks into the new neighbors’ apartment, thinks they are spies and pretends to be a chair), and I thought Ricky spoke Spanish because we were a few miles from Mexico and the show was being translated.
Restless, my parents whisked us away from Del Rio after a quick morning in Ciduad Acuña, and we arrived in Eagle Pass, crossing over to Piedras Negras. While I’m sure we missed a few of the must-see sights (probably all of them except the market), I had what would become one of those “stories you’ll tell your grandchildren” experiences. Seeing that I have no grandchildren, and if I did they’d probably be the sort who wouldn’t appreciate my stories, I’m going to share it here.
My mother got the idea that we needed to buy sugar because it was—well, I don’t remember the reason. I’d just turned nine and was traveling with these three adults. They’d taken me into a foreign country with my sister as translator, and the next thing I know we’re being driven around the city to find someone who’ll give us a good deal on sugar.
This was before Sam’s Club and Costco with their bulk-buying business models. We were in the Energy Crisis and doomsayers were out in full force. Did we think an apocalypse would drive sugar prices higher than gold? Were cookies and cakes on the verge of extinction? I can’t say. I’m often accused of not paying attention, but it’s really a case of what’s going on in my head is of more interest than what’s going on around me. My baking skills were still in their infancy, but even I could see 100 pounds of sugar was a tad excessive.
The giant bag got loaded into the taxi’s trunk, and the driver took us to our car in Texas. He and my dad lifted it into the back seat of our Ford Custom 500 because there was no room in our trunk. Why wouldn’t there be space in a vast Ford trunk? Because our mother had purchased two large clay pots in Ciudad Acuña, which she thought would perfectly flank our front entrance. Side note: they did not. Keep in mind it was the 70s and decorating was just an outward display of an anxious nation grappling with cultural transition. Home décor photos of the era should be used for nothing more than cautionary tales.
With no room in the trunk, they moved the Coleman ice-chest next to the sugar, my sister got in the front seat (younger readers should note that old cars provided the opportunity to put three adults up front), and I slid into the back with a few small pieces of luggage where I reclined for the next 500 miles while wondering what would happen should the giant sack begin to leak.
I thought we were to have been gone for a week, but when you’ve filled your car with oversized clay pots and the biggest bag of sugar they make, you really have no choice but to go home. Upon arrival, out came the bag of sugar, and then came the work of storing it. One gets a box of plastic bags and starts scooping. Five sacks into the process, and shelving it becomes an issue. You also notice that you’ve barely made a dent, but you can’t close the giant bag. It’s open, and you have to keep going until your kitchen cabinets resemble ones you’d find in a drug dealer’s house.
I zoned out after a certain point. I have no idea if we gave any away, used some as currency or if we didn’t have to buy sugar again until Reagan left office. I just know that for the remainder of my adolescence I’d open that set of cabinets to the left of the stove and see bags of white.
I’m reminded of this incident because I inherited my mother’s estimation skills. One might describe them as a lack of skills. We tend to look at things and say, “That will fit!” A 100 pounds of sugar? No problem. “Where do you plan to put a grand piano in such a tight space?” I’ll find room, don’t you worry!
Lately, my failure to comprehend volume has manifested in “the garden,” which is a few acres of woodland in need of some “subtle manipulation.” The elderly former owners were unable to keep up with things for their final years there, and I feel like I’m in a race against time to restore pathways, eradicate invasive non-natives and push back against the vines and branches in order to uncover the beauty beneath.
There is no green waste disposal service, and that’s great when I start trimming and futzing with various areas. I can go on for hours and days with clippers and saws of varying sizes, but the downside is trying to keep the refuse in tidy piles. We had a remarkably wet winter, so burning days were limited. We’d burned a modest pile in October, but it started stacking up quickly. Then I kept trimming and cutting and piling all over the place not realizing exactly how much we’d removed when in most places it looks like we’ve not done a thing. With no burn days to clear away the mess, Gary was beginning to fret, while I said over and over, “It’s just a few piles. No problem!”
As of this writing, we’ve burned 17 of approximately 20 piles of varying sizes ranging from two giant handfuls to the massive burn pile over four feet high and approximately ten feet wide. Our new friend Dave came over one Saturday and joined us in burning. This is one of the truest gestures of selfless friendship because I don’t know of anyone but an arsonist who’d enjoy hours of fueling a fire at somebody else’s place. Until I started having to gather the small piles and bring them to a central burning location, I’d not realized exactly how much progress we’ve made or how much physical work is required. It seems so little when I look down from the house, but we’ve started to put our stamp on things.
I see the forest as a big-picture project. Gary shakes his head and says wearily, “There’s just so much to do.” He’s probably right, but I’m not bothered. Such an undertaking keeps me stimulated. In my mind I can see the finished project, and I remain in denial that when we reach a certain level of satisfaction it will be time to start over.
© 2016 by Patrick Brown
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