A Mother's Cry: I Did Not Sell My Sons
August 22, 2012
Maria Houston seldom smiled anymore or had any reason to. The pain had wiped the smiles away and left her to trudge the streets of Longview alone, peddling her tamales just as she had back when oil lay new upon the ground and before her boys had run away fro the last time.
She missed them. She always would. And Maria hated those boys for leaving her but forgave them even though she knew in her heart that they would never be coming back again. She felt old but really wasn’t. Her shoulders were stooped, and those wrinkles in her face matched the ones in her faded yellow dress.
Some laughed at her and took her for granted. But they bought her hot tamales, so Maria ignored them and simply faded into the shadows when they were gone. The sun could not find Maria Houston. She wouldn’t let it. And nobody ever looked for long into the dark, empty eyes that couldn’t cry anymore.
At night, Maria would lay upon her small bunk in a tarpaper shack and try to remember her growing up days down in Chihuahua, Mexico. They seemed so far away, the fragment of a dream that splintered. She had been the daughter of aristocracy. Her wants had been many and her needs few. And Maria had wanted John Houston, a mining engineer who had come to dig his fortune out of those stubborn Mexican mountains. He was young, and some said he was handsome and quite dashing.
Maria smiled a lot in those days, and she swore that John Houston would not journey back to American soil without her. He didn’t. And the engineer led his bride back to his home on the Texas coast. She was used to the best, and that’s what he would give her.
Maria gave him sons, four of them, and the couple adopted two more young brothers whose parents had died and left them abandoned on the streets without a home. Maria Houston was never happier than when she was with her boys, and she always kept them close to here. They were her strength. They were life itself, at least the best part of it. And Maria didn’t really even mind when her wayfaring husband ventured again into the mountains of Mexico. After all, he was searching for wealth. After all, he believed that it lay somewhere deep within the hidden ridges of Chihuahua, and it was waiting for him, and John Houston vowed to remain in Mexico until he found it. He stayed the rest of his life. It wasn’t long.
Late one afternoon, Maria heard a knock on her door. She opened it, and a stranger brought the news she never thought she would hear.
“I have word about your husband,” he said.
“He got caught up in the Madero Revolution. He was riding on a train when terrorists dynamited it.”
“Is he hurt?”
“He is dead.”
Maria Houston turned to face life without the support and comfort of a husband. She had plenty of money, she thought. It was quickly gone. And all she had left to cling to were her boys. For Maria, they were enough. They worked together, and they worked hard, to scrape up enough money to put in their bellies and a mattress beneath their tired backs at night. The good life lay shuttered behind them, and Maria Houston roamed the streets, day after day, selling hot tamales from her cart. She had lost her dignity, but she kept her pride, and she refused any help that anyone offered.
“Me and my boys, we’ll get by,” she said.
Sometimes she smiled. Mostly she didn’t. The boys fought in school, angry over snide remarks they heard about the tamale lady, and nobody ridiculed their mama. She had given them her pride, if nothing else. Maria never worried about the faded shirts or patched trousers that the boys wore. But she saw their black eyes and split lips, and it hurt. Yet, it gave her the strength to go on. She needed them. God, how she needed them. And Maria prayed that they would be with her forever and she knew her prayers were selfish, and she hoped that the Good Lord would forgive her and answer them anyway.
But, alas, World War II raged across Europe. And the Army took her boys away from their tarpaper home and scattered them on foreign soil. All six of them volunteered as soon as the bullets started flying even though the youngest had to lie about his age in order to crawl his way into the trenches of Germany. He even went AWOL from his unit just so he could find his brothers and fight beside them again. He was used to it.
Maria watched them leave, somewhat proud, somewhat sad, and somewhat bitter. And she waited patiently for their return, peddling her hot tamales, wrapped in corn shucks, throughout the oilfield and army camps that stretched from Texas to Arkansas. She became a common sight, pushing her little cart through the mud, telling anyone who would listen about her boys who had run off to fight the big war.
“They’re coming back soon,” she would say.
“When the fighting’s over.”
“And what are you going to do then?”
Maria paused behind a fragile smile and answered softly, “I’m gonna laugh again.”
The fighting stopped. And Maria looked eagerly each day for the boys in uniform to come marching home again to her doorstep. One boy made his way back to Longview, angry that all six had not been able to catch the same plane home.
The next soldier who stood at Maria’s door was a stranger. Again. A stranger. She was frightened the moment she saw him. “I regret to inform you,” he said solemnly, “that your sons have been killed in action.”
“All of them?”
“That is the information I have,” he said.
He nodded. “Each of your sons was covered by a ten-thousand-dollar insurance policy,” the stranger in uniform said. “I’ll help you fill out the applications for the money that is due you.”
Maria shook her head. “No,” she replied, her voice low and firm. “I did not sell my boys to the government. The government can buy guns and ammunition and beef to eat. But it can’t buy my boys.”
She turned away and, as the darkness of a late afternoon threaded its way down the ragged cracks in the sidewalk, she followed her pushcart, as she always did, down toward the empty end of a lonely street.
Someone stopped her to buy a hot tamale.
“Not today,” she whispered.
“I’ve lost them,” she said. “I only have one left.”
“But your cart is full of tamales,” he said.
“Boys,” she said and walked slowly away.